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From activist to actor: Gitana Productions casts Ferguson resident in original play

The death of Michael Brown and its aftermath have invigorated a core group of protesters. Now, at least one of them is becoming an actor as well an activist.

The transition is the brainchild of a small theater group called Gitana Productions. Founder Cecilia Nadal commissioned a play inspired by the events, written by Lee Patton  Chiles. She wanted to include Ferguson residents in the cast, and applied for grant money to pay for drama classes at Dellwood's Greater St. Marks Church to help them prepare.

One protester who’s taking it from the streets to the stage is David Royal, 33.

“I’m not an actor. I never thought that I’d be trying to do a play,” Royal said.

‘Somebody has to do something’

On a recent, blustery, 10-degree morning, I met David Royal near his Canfield Green apartment in Ferguson. But it was much hotter on Saturday, Aug. 9, when Royal heard gunshots outside his door. A former Marine, his first instinct was to help.

“I thought it was a couple of young guys who had gotten into it so I came down to see if I could lend some assistance or whatever,” Royal said.

 David Royal at the Michael Brown memorial site on Canfield Drive
Credit Nancy Fowler
David Royal at the Michael Brown memorial site on Canfield Drive

Only one man was shot that day, of course. Michael Brown, a friend of Royal’s sons’, killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Royal says law enforcement with machine guns and police dogs arrived soon after a local crowd began to gather, including Brown’s relatives.

“They were sitting over there in that lawn right there, Mike Brown’s mom, some of his family and everything some of the other mothers from the community, screaming, somebody has to do something,” Royal remembered.

Royal decided he would be one of those “somebodys.” Despite being in school full-time and raising four of his own kids, plus four more with his fiancée,  he joined a group of regular demonstrators in the emerging movement. He also began working for the Center for Hope and Peace,a Ferguson community center for healing, education and entrepreneurship.

Then he heard about a new call for activism. “Black and Blue” is a play exploring tensions between African-Americans and the police. It’s a theme that resonates with Royal, whose mother and stepfather are both police officers.

“They’re still part of the system that’s messed up and I don’t’ think they or anybody’s doing enough to change the system for the people,” Royal said.

‘Fire and Ice’:  Two responses to Ferguson

Royal has never acted before, but he’s been a good sport about the class’ theater exercises, which can feel a bit awkward. Diana Barrios, artistic director of Leverage Dance, led the group in a series of movements and sound, that David has come to appreciate.

Diana Barrios, with back turned, leads a theater exercise with, clockwise, Chocolate Gowdey, Bud Cuzz and Valerie Felix.
Credit Nancy Fowler
Diana Barrios, with back turned, leads a theater exercise with, clockwise, Chocolate Gowdey, Bud Cuzz and Valerie Felix.

“It seems silly when you’re doing little exercises, ‘Fee, fi, fo; and all that, but then you laugh a little bit and you feel more comfortable,” Royal said. “You see someone you thought was hard core and you were ‘eff the police’ together but now you get to see a different side — and that builds relationships.”

Then they got down to the serious stuff, on a very serious night. It was the sixth-month anniversary of Brown’s death. Two actors created a scene in which they were both police officers, one of whom was devastated after killing a child, the other assuring him the force "had his back."

To prepare himself for the stage, Royal recited a poem by Robert Frost.

“Some say the world will end in fire, others say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold to those who favor fire,” Royal recounted.

The fire stands for the protests, looting and destruction, Royal explained. The ice is about calmer reactions, like the political process, or this play. In class, Royal also participated in a beat-box layering of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and an impromptu scene in which he advised a younger brother to keep his cool.

From the time when she first met him, it was easy for director Cecilia Nadal to see Royal's potential.

“He’s able to share feelings in a way that sometimes is unusual for men,’ Nadal said. “He can say, ‘I felt hurt.’ He’s able to say, ‘My people are in pain.’ He’s very expressive and he’s also very bright.”

L.A. Williams is the drama teacher for the Gitana classes (one of his claims to fame is a small role in the recent hit movie “Gone Girl”). Williams said those who don't make the cast will benefit from learning new presentation skills.

“Even if you’re a teacher or if you’re the manager at whatever store or place of business, you’ve got to be able to communicate with your employees or colleagues,” William said.

David Royal in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Credit David Royal
David Royal in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Royal will play the part of a protester in the play, a natural fit. He just returned from Selma where he and others all the country helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” during the Montgomery-to-Selma, Ala. civil-rights march.

Royal hopes that being in the play will set a different kind of example for his kids, and his community, of chipping away at their own personal barriers.

“Because that’s the reason we have these kinds of murders and things out here in the streets, because we don’t understand each other,” Royal said. “So it’s about breaking down walls.”

“Black and Blue” will open May 22 at the Missouri History Museum, before moving on to the Kranzberg Arts Center in Grand Center and then other locations. All performances will be free to the public.

Hear more from David Royal on "Cityscape." Nancy Fowler talked about the budding actor and shares more clips from his drama class and his thoughts from the scene of the Michael Brown memorial.

"Cityscape": Nancy Fowler shares how activist David Royal became an actor.

Steve Potter talked with Gitana's Cecilia Nadal and activist/actor David Royal back in November, in the early planning stages of the play "Black and Blue," on his STL TV show "City Corner."

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.