Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Burning of GreenwoodNimbus Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Million Dollar Quartet, The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings and Our Town

Kira K. Spears and Jeremie Niyonkuru Jr.
Photo by Josh Cragun
It was only about a dozen years ago that I first learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre and the destruction of Greenwood, an African American community in the city of Tulsa that was decimated during two days of white against Black rioting, looting and arson on May 31 and June 1, 1921. Greenwood was a prospering, self-contained district in which Black doctors, lawyers, journalists, bankers, clergy, teachers and retailers lived and worked. Its streets were lined with genteel homes. The community had amassed so much wealth, it was dubbed the "Negro Wall Street." The 1921 riots erased almost all of that wealth. About 10,000 Black people were left homeless, and the cost of the damage amounted to $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property–a total equivalent to $39.92 million today. Estimates of fatalities vary between 75 and 300, while more than 800 Tulsans were admitted to hospitals.

This was a massive upheaval in our nation's history and should have been included in the Advanced American History class I took in high school–in any American History class, for that matter. It is just one of many cases of the selectivity with which we have been educated about our own nation's past, a past that continues to affect our present. Nimbus Theatre is presenting the world premiere of The Burning of Greenwood by Atlese Robinson, a play that, in just 75 minutes, manages to present the incident that triggered the riots, along with the underlying tension between the races that was simmering in Tulsa, a vivid depiction of the upheaval itself, and a glimpse into its aftermath.

The play is very well written, picking out particular personalities, all of whom were historically real people who played a role in the events, and creating a sense of each character's temperament toward the best way to address race relations in their city. Robinson has sequenced events to offer a clear understanding of the catastrophe that occurred and has crafted dialogue that brings a feeling of authenticity to these people and the interactions among them. The cast and staging are on par with the excellent script, making The Burning of Greenwood a play that not only deserves to be, but needs to be seen by theatregoers of all generations, all races, all regions of our nation.

The play begins with nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland, a Black shoe shiner, entering an elevator operated by seventeen-year-old Sarah Page, who is white. As he does so, he trips and falls upon Sarah, who screams. Though he has done nothing wrong, Dick knows that a young Black man tumbling on a young white woman spells trouble, so he flees. After Dick is arrested, a local newspaper prone to sensationalism blows it up with a provocative headline claiming he sexually molested Sarah in spite of Sarah's own statement that he merely touched her arm and that there were no grounds for a complaint.

A mob of angry white Tulsans show up at the courthouse and rumors fly that they will lynch Dick Rowland before the sheriff can release him. Members of the Greenwood community have different responses. O.W. Gurley, one of earliest and most prosperous settlers, wants to negotiate an agreement with the white sheriff to guarantee Dick's protection; grocer O.B Mann and attorney A.J. Smitherman don't trust the sheriff and want to organize the Greenwood men to go to the courthouse and protect Dick from the mob. John Williams, a businessman whose wife Loula runs a confectionary and a theater, leans toward the activists, but Loula begs him to avoid confrontation and their sixteen-year-old son William comes to understand the injustice his people face, and aches to stand beside his father.

What is clear–and what we know from history–is that this will not end well. There is also talk about a recent change in the city's zoning ordinance that makes rebuilding Greenwood a prohibitively expensive proposition, insinuating that there may have been a conspiracy to create a pretext for an uprising that would clear out Greenwood and allow a different set of developers to move in.

Doc Woods, a fine actor, makes his directorial debut with this production and has done a first-rate job of pacing conversations so that we feel the compelling weight of the actions they presage. When the riot comes, Woods orchestrates a dimly lit jumble of actors running on and off stage, destroying everything in Greenwood, along with the sounds of an angry mob, shrieks of wounded citizens, and blasts of gunfire (the stunning sound design is by Dameun Strange) and lighting that evokes the first flames and growing strength of a conflagration that levels the community, with Mitchell Frazier responsible for the excellent lighting design.

Strange also provides instrumental recorded music of the period between scenes, keeping us based in an era one hundred years passed, even as the issues could be snippets of last week's news. The set, designed by Tyler Krohn, is simple but effectively designates the different places in which the story unfolds: the Williams' confectionary, the Dreamland Theatre, the sheriff's office, A.J.'s office, and the steps of the Tulsa County Courthouse. Jenny Moeller's costumes wonderfully match the period, with slight differentiation to reflect each character's degree of financial comfort.

Director Woods appears as John Williams, who occupies the play's center as he struggles to balance his allegiance to protecting Greenwood against Jim Crow racism and the growing Ku Klux Klan menace, with his wife's reasonable fears for his safety and their security, and his son's desire to step out of boyhood and count as a man in their community. Woods' performance conveys a reflective intelligence and deep warmth toward Williams' family and his friends. Michael Galvan is excellent as boldly resolute A.J. Smitherman (though a tendency to speak softly caused us to miss a few of his lines). Emmanuel L. Woods conveys the raw passion for justice that animates O.B. Mann. Quentin Michael depicts O.W. Gurley's delicate balancing act between supporting his community and looking after his own interests. It is fascinating to see his bravado with fellow Greenwood businessmen regarding his influence on the sheriff, contrasted with his timidity when actually dealing with the sheriff. Perhaps O.W. knows that (in 1921, at least) a Black man is more likely to persuade a white man with humility than with anger.

Kira K. Spears is especially moving as Loula Williams–practical in running her business, fearful for the risks her husband takes, protective of her son as he edges toward adulthood in a world of injustice, and fierce in her commitment to her community. As Loula and John's son William, Jeremie Niyonkuru Jr. gives a remarkable performance, capturing the annoyance of a sixteen-year-old feeling hemmed in by his parents while revealing his growing awareness of–and opposition to–inequities in the world. Camrin King gives a strong performance as Emma Gurley, O.W.'s wife who is not always in alignment with her husband's notions. B.E. Kerian has an odd bit as a white man who introduces the shows to the mixed-race audience at the Dreamland Theatre, owned by Loula Williams, shamelessly condescending to the crowd. Nathan Block, as Sheriff McCullough, takes the "good old boy" persona just a slice too far, tottering between authenticity and caricature.

I could have welcomed a little more meat on the bones of this compelling story–perhaps a chance to hear from Dick Rowland on how he feels from inside the courthouse jail as the mob gathers outside. Does he believe he will be kept safe from harm? What thoughts does he have toward the angry mob, out for his blood despite his innocence? Another query could be into the fire in O.B Mann's heart. When heading to the courthouse to face the mob, he wears a military uniform that suggests he fought in World War I. If so, perhaps that experience has bearing on the man he has become, and is another facet, on a larger scale, of the ways in which African American people gave to their country without feeling that the country gave back in return.

Those bits, or others, could provide further elucidation on the build-up to, and experience of, the Tulsa Race Massacre, but their absence does not detract from the fine work of playwright Robinson, director Woods, and their cast and crew at Nimbus. This play is a strong piece that deserves a long life beyond its current three-week run. It could be extremely valuable viewing for today's history students–and, for that matter, for the parents and grandparents of those students. Hat's off to Nimbus for bringing The Burning of Greenwood forward, and for giving it such a brightly polished production.

The Burning of Greenwood, presented by Nimbus, continues through June 25, 2023, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: sliding scale, $5 - $50. For tickets and information, please visit or call 612-548-1379.

Playwright: Atlese Robinson; Director: Doc Woods; Set Design: Tyler Krohn; Costume Design: The Costume Collective; Lighting Design: Mitchell Frazier; Sound Design: Dameun Strange; Prop Design: Jenny Moeller; Consulting Director: Ernie Briggs; Stage Manager: Erin Gustafson, Assistant Stage Manage: Jasmine Clopton.

Cast: Nathan Block (Sheriff McCullough), Michael Galvan (A.J. Smitherman), B.E. Kerian (Henry Sowders), Camrin King (Emma Gurley), Tara Lucchino (Sarah Page), Quentin Michael (O.W. Gurley), Jeremie Niyonkuru Jr. (William Williams), Kira K. Spears (Loula Williams), Doc Woods (John Williams), Emmanuel L. Woods (O.B. Mann).