In addition to our ongoing work to challenge racial conditioning and advance racial justice, members of the Center for the Healing of Racism always have a good time when we get together socially. To be sure, the topic of racism is never far away. And so it was on on Sunday, February 2, 2020, when a group of 18 Center members met in the lobby of Houston’s Ensemble Theatre for a matinee performance of The Green Book, a play by Calvin Alexander Ramsey. In case you’re wondering, it’s not the same story depicted in the 2018 Academy Award-winning film Green Book. Since most of us had already seen that film, we were delighted to learn that the play tells a completely different story.
Both works, however, use the The Negro Motorist Green Book (or simply the Green Book) as a vehicle to portray aspects of daily life for African Americans in the Jim Crow south. The Green Book was an annual guidebook of establishments (hotels, rooms for rent, restaurants, gas stations, shops, etc.) that accepted African American patrons during segregation. It was published between 1936 and 1966, when, presumably, it was no longer needed following the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The play is set in Jefferson City, Missouri on Saturday, April 26, 1956. The action takes place in the living room of Dan and Barbara Davis and their teenage daughter Neena, a middle class Black family whose home is listed in the Green Book as a safe place to stay for African American travelers. As the day begins, Mrs. Davis is preparing food for a reception for W.E.B. DuBois following his speech later that day in Jefferson City. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that one of the Davis family’s current houseguests, Keith Chenault, a traveling salesman for the Green Book, is planning to make a deal with the devil (Jim Crow) at the expense of his fellow Black citizens. Also staying at the Davis home is a young African American couple, Captain George Smith and his wife Jacqueline, who took refuge there the previous evening after driving all day and discovering they were not welcome at local hotels. The unexpected appearance of a white Jewish Holocaust survivor, who also depends on the Green Book to find safe lodging, throws an unexpected twist into the story.
The play is fast paced, dramatic, funny at times and, overall, emotionally wrenching. Following the performance, Center Co-Directors Cherry Steinwender and Laura Gallier led a rich and stimulating Talkback in which members of the audience volunteered stories of their experiences of “Travelling While Black”, both when the law necessitated the Green Book and even in current times.
Following the performance and Talkback, we gathered in the home of one of our members to process the experience. The Center for the Healing of Racism, in fact, always provides its members and guests the opportunity to share painful memories and express our feelings An in a safe, respectful, racially diverse group following each of our workshops and other events.