Social activism in motion

There is one thing that Cristal Chanelle Truscott wants to do with her play Peaches, and that is to move audience members. That’s exactly what happened when Rashida Bumbray saw the play, which presents and breaks down black female stereotypes throughout American history.

“I am someone who actually saw the production of Peaches in 2001 from the audience,” Bumbray said. “(I) was so moved and so changed by the piece and thought about it so much and talked about it so much with everyone I know that it was really a blessing for me to come into the ensemble, and I’ve been in the group for a year now.”

The ensemble Bumbray is referring to is ProgressTheatre, a touring company of five NYU graduates.

Truscott, the founder of the ensemble group, wrote Peaches in 2000 and began touring with the play after it was commissioned in the summer of 2001. The performance will come to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this weekend.

Peaches, as Truscott said, was inspired by the last verse of Nina Simone’s song “Four Women,” a ’60s anthem of oppressed women.

“I was very interested in stereotypes and stereotyping, and I was introduced to Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women’ in high school, and I fell in love with it,” Truscott said. “Her genius is to introduce four stereotypes, and through the song, she breaks them down in a very creative and emotional way. The particular stereotype that I most identified with was Peaches.”Hence the name of the play.

Truscott’s work, as she described, is both a dream sequence and a dream timeline, an essay and a slave narrative.

The story stems from Simone’s lyrics: “My skin is brown / And my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / ‘Cause my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me? / My name is Peaches.”

Just like the song, the play presents an angry militant black woman, any woman who could have been called Peaches. Truscott takes her character through time and history, from slavery to present times, and uses “theater as a vehicle to interrogate to break it down to re-examine the stereotype,” she said.

“There are these stereotypes that are introduced, which are bold and brassy, easily recognizable,” she said. “Through (Simone’s) delivery, they are broken down to really reveal the humanity, complexity and diversity and emotionality of these archetypes that have been put on the African American female identity from slavery times to the present.”

And although Simone’s song is about women of color, Truscott thinks anyone can relate.

“In my mind, (Peaches is) a call against all stereotyping,” Truscott said. “The show itself is particular to the African American female experience, but my belief is that you reach universal sensibilities by addressing particularities.”

The emotional bond between the characters and the audience is what touched Bumbray when she saw the play that first time. Today, she is part of the troupe and performs in the play herself. Trained as a tap dancer, Bumbray contributes her talents to the troupe.

“I actually do a dance that is the prologue, in a way,” Bumbray said. “It’s to the first three verses of the Nina Simone song. The fourth verse is where the ensemble enters the stage and begins talking about Peaches and all the various characters that have been named throughout the play. My role is specifically to embody and talk about the other three women that Nina Simone mentions in the song.”

The play’s hodgepodge nature stems from the multiple settings.

“It goes along the lines of the experimental flavor the piece has and this nonlinear or fluid way in which the play moves, still having a structure of characters who go through things and discover things about themselves,” Maiesha McQueen said.

McQueen wrote the music for Peaches after joining ProgressTheatre in 2001, when the group was just forming. Since then she has become essential to the troupe. Her creative partnership with Truscott is the driving force behind ProgressTheatre.

“We always kind of joke about being the modern-day Rogers and Hammerstein, trying to keep the legacy of the ensemble theatre company alive,” McQueen said. “Very rarely nowadays do you see any collaborative partnerships where people stay together and try to develop a style of work that can be recognized.”

Peaches, McQueen said, was crucial to her artistic life.

“It came at a time when I, as a young black female adult, could relate to many of the issues that Cristal brought forward in the script Peaches,” she said. “I felt like it was meant for me to be there.”

That’s why all three agree: ProgressTheatre must bring social consciousness to its audiences.

“We want to start a movement of people coming back to the theatre, back to live performance to pay attention to things that are going on in society,” McQueen said.

Truscott agrees.

“What greater way to reach people than through live performance,” she said. “It moves people in a way that movies cannot, because you’re there and you can see the people breathing, you can see them sweating and you feel that human-body energy in the room.”

McQueen says there are too many important things going on in the world for artists to be silent.

“As artists, we made a choice that we wanted to use our talent to be of an assistance to educating ourselves, our communities, the greater society,” she said. “Many of the things that we feel we cannot ignore. We want to follow the legacy of those artists who came before us (for whom) being an artist for entertainment only was not an option. I wouldn’t even feel comfortable using my art for any other purpose.”

ProgressTheatre strives to make a difference in the makeup of the theatergoers.

“Using art as activism is at the core of all the ensemble members’ mission,” Truscott said.Opening for Peaches are two local artists, Lizz Straight, a spoken word poet and host of Poetry Is on WMNF 88.5, and Venus Jones, who released her album in 2003, was part of Tampa’s Def Poetry Jam and is a three-time Tampa Bay area slam winner.

Peaches plays in Shimberg Playhouse at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. General admission tickets are $25. Student tickets are $20 at the door.