'Maafa Suite' mixes religion, education, history, healing

The message of the traveling slavery psychodrama "Maafa Suite" — the way out is back through — may seem counterintuitive at first. What can be gained from an indulgence like revisiting past suffering?

But when "Maafa Suite" returns to Seattle Thursday for a three-night stint at the Moore Theatre, it will make a case in the most graphic terms and images that history can be a source of healing and, possibly, racial reconciliation.

Conceived and produced by members of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., the show fuses music, dance, drama and poetry in a performance that re-creates the trans-Atlantic slave trade, also known as the Middle Passage. It's a show that surrounds and, in a way, seeks to involve you.

The word "Maafa" is Kiswahili for "great calamity, tragedy or catastrophe." One mission of the show is to help people understand slavery and the roots of racism.

The 75-person suite — which is part theater, part history lesson, part group baptism — debuted in Seattle last year to near sell-out audiences over its two-night run. A third night was added this year.

In each city the "Maafa Suite" visits, locals are invited to participate and to develop a segment featuring music, dance and spoken word that reflects that town's African-American spirit.

More than 50 Seattle performers will be involved in different parts of the program.

And the 10-person Seattle Ensemble, as it's dubbed, will receive more stage time than last year, in a performance that includes local black history trivia and satirical digs at news coverage of recent shooting incidents in the Seattle area involving black men and law-enforcement officers.

Seattle Ensemble Director Justin Emeka, who appeared in the suite last year as well, says he's not picking at fresh wounds. By pointing to racially charged — and somehow unresolved — shootings, he hopes to bridge the black/white tensions of the past and those of the present.

"These problems are festering sores," he said. "The relationship between the black community and the police," for example, "is a wound that goes way back."

Indeed, the performers in his troupe display more bluesy humor and quiet release than rage.

Emeka describes the highly spiritual nature of "Maafa Suite" as a kind of "artistic church" for people of all races and religious backgrounds. (The Brooklyn troupe usually works with other congregations when it travels but not in Seattle's case.)

Audience members are asked to wear white — a color of mourning in some cultures, but also a color representing cleansing and peace, show director Jesse Wooden Jr. said.

From the moment people enter the Moore Theatre lobby, they will be confronted with the repellent yet morbidly gripping harshness of slavery. The lobby floor will be covered with dirt. Men and women dressed as slaves will moan and writhe in shackles.

"It'll be a slave pen," Wooden said flatly. "Some people don't want to pass through it. Some people will hurry through to get to their seats. Some people have collapsed" at shows.

Echoing Emeka's point, Wooden said: "The reason we do this is there is a lot of healing yet to be accomplished in this country because of the legacy of slavery."

For blacks, "there's unexplored, unexplained feelings of rage, or unexplained grief — maybe that's the word for it. And shame, quite frankly, at the thought that our ancestors were slaves," Wooden said.

"If something happens to you, and you do nothing about it, it festers. We should heed the message of our Jewish brethren: Never again. And the only way is not to forget."

But Wooden said the problem reaches beyond black communities: "Not only do black people have to heal, but America has to heal."

Wooden wants to inspire people across the country to start meaningful dialogue and perhaps organize "Maafa" performances of their own. The Brooklyn production probably won't return to Seattle next year, Emeka said. The hope is that the Seattle troupe's momentum will lead to an entirely local show come next summer.

Funding and marketing "Maafa Suite" has been tough because it doesn't fit neatly into a single category, and its content can be disturbing, show spokeswoman Vivian Phillips said.

"It's a huge challenge because we walk a line between entertainment, religion and community education," she said.

But with backing this year from Boeing, U.S. Bank, Safeco, Borders Books and Music, The Seattle Times, the City of Seattle and the Moore and Paramount theaters among others, the possibility of continuing the program with local talent and professional production values holds promise.

"Maafa Suite" does hint at a way out by the show's end with a call for reparations to the descendants of slavery. Not the monetary kind, though.

"A lot of what 'Maafa' addresses, either directly or indirectly, is the issue of reparations, but even more of atonement," Emeka said. "The country has never atoned for slavery or even the second-class citizenship that came after slavery."

The message of reconciliation at last year's show struck a chord with Steve Sneed, Seattle Center's manager of programming.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if the country made an apology?" said Sneed, who organizes cultural festivals at the Center.

"It's powerful to ask for forgiveness. And then we, as black people, can say, 'OK, done.' "

But no one involved with "Maafa Suite" believes a single evening of theater will soothe generations of pain and conflict.

"People often look for these types of shows to be quick fixes," Emeka said. He laughs.

"If we could do that in a night, we would. But hopefully, this will be part of a new approach for how to use the theater. It's what the theater itself is hungry for."

Tyrone Beason: (206) 464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com.

"Maafa Suite"

Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m., Moore Theatre, 1932 2nd Ave., Seattle;$15 to $20, Ticketmaster, 206-628-0888, or the Paramount Theatre box office.