“We have an expression in African American culture: I can’t go another further,” says Austene Van, the artistic director of New Dawn Theatre Company, a St. Paul-based nonprofit dedicated to producing theater that features underheard voices.
The murder of George Floyd in broad daylight by four officers. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more. A lack of police accountability—one of many systemic injustices that ensnare and entrap BIPOC. It’s too much. “That’s what it is, and you can feel it. I was just a baby in ’69,” Van says, “but the country burst at the seams then, too. They couldn’t go on: no more. We can’t live like this.”
The storm of change can be quaking and righteous, forcefully grabbing people’s attention so that they can see the hurt and the injustice that has rained down for so long, but the difficult part is creating a better world in its wake. That’s why Van wanted to create new film A Breath for George, a collaboration between New Dawn Theatre Company and local artists. It isn’t only about the emotions that erupted after Floyd died. It’s also about how people can continue to create and support change.
“After we all got up off the floor crying, crying watching them take the man’s life and knowing they’ll continue to take a life and they have been taking our lives … I just called and emailed my wonderful artistic friends, and I said we had to do something,” Van says.
The hour-long film pieces together a mosaic of poems, songs, monologues, interviews, and ways the community can continue to take action. Artists include Thomasina Petrus, T. Mychael Rambo, and Regina Marie Williams, who have sent in videos along with activists such as Melvin Carter Jr. (father of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter), Talvin Wilks, Harvey Blanks, James Craven, John Wright, and Sarah Bellamy.
A Breath for George is being screened for free, June 14-21, on the exterior walls of multiple Twin Cities theaters, including Penumbra Theatre and Mixed Blood Theatre, as well as Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. Any donations will be given to local charities.
To Van and others, art has always been a way to fight for social justice. With the chorus of voices in A Breath for George, the resources the film mentions, and those found on New Dawn Theatre’s website, Van hopes to provide ways for people to listen, learn, and act, no matter where they are.
“We get comfortable, you know, after a moment, and then we forget or we deny,” she says. “We’ll take two steps forward—and those are great victories, those steps—but there is a long road that we have to keep traversing.”