UW-Madison kicked off Black History Month Sunday night with a performance of “We the 350: Stories of Racism, Poverty and Incarceration” at Memorial Union.
“If no racial disparities existed in Madison, there would be 350 fewer Black people in the Dane County Jail on any given day,” said its playbill. “Black people are 6 percent of the county’s population, but make up about 50 percent of the 800 people incarcerated in the Dane County Jail.”
T. Banks, a UW-Madison alumnus, and Sara L. McKinnon, an assistant professor in the communication arts department, wrote and directed the show
“These stories that you hear are straight from the words of black folks here in Madison,” Banks said. “Nothing has been scripted, all of these words come from interviews that we did.”
The cast was made up of five actors, dressed in all black. One of the actresses had a shirt with the slogan “Black Girl Magic” on it. The set was minimalistic, including only chairs and blocks, and the actors moved on and off stage with the telling of each new story. Every seat in the audience was filled, and members contributed with snapping and vocalizations throughout the performance.
The show started and ended with the performers chanting “Free the 350” back and forth to each other, while holding signs with the same message. The stories focused on issues of poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and incarceration as they had been experienced by black people in Milwaukee and Madison.
The performances were split into seven scenes, each depicting a separate story. One described the first time a young girl came to terms with her mother being a drug addict. In another, a high school student on the brink of homelessness was offered a free prom dress by a social worker.
“I came out to her and was like ‘yo, I don’t want to wear a prom dress.’ But she came into our session with all these racks of clothes… I thought that shit was so petty. I could be kicked out at any moment, and you trying to hand me a dress?!” the actress said.
The performance was presented by UW-Madison’s Pathways to Educational Achievement Office, the Black History Month Student Planning Committee and WUD Performing Arts Center. It will be followed by other Black History Month events throughout the month.