(From right) Actress Charlene Watt and actor Carl Brooks lead the audience in a song.
Actors Carl Brooks and Charlene Watts (right) lead the audience in a song. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Growing up in 1960s Fort Worth, segregation and racial tension were a part of playwright Eugene Lee’s daily life. But one of the bright spots during often turbulent times was the yearly Juneteenth celebration that brought his whole South Side neighborhood together.

In his play, Ode to Juneteenth, which debuted at the Witte Museum on Tuesday, Lee encapsulates more than 150 years of history following June 19, 1865 when news of the abolition of slavery finally reached Texas – more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. In less than 30 minutes, the play tells an impactful story following the character of Emancipation Jones on a journey from the first Juneteenth celebration through the civil rights movement to President Barack Obama’s election.

As part of the Witte’s Tricentennial exhibit and gallery theater program, the play is one of several works that will be performed alongside some of the artifacts as museum visitors make their way through the exhibit. Next to a display case that features shackles and a deed of sale, local actors Carl Brooks and Charlene Watts will alternate their portrayals of the main character in weekly performances through December.

And while the play confronts years of struggle faced by the black community, Lee said, he wanted the play to be a celebration.

“I’m old enough now to have laid all the hate and mistrust along the side of the road, and now, I’m much more interested in finding common ground,” Lee said. “I didn’t want this play to beat people down. I wanted this to be an uplifting experience, so I leaned on that celebration – the food, the rituals, the dancing, the music.”

Eugene Lee, Ode to Juneteenth Playwright, answers questions from the audience.
Eugene Lee, Ode to Juneteenth playwright, answers questions from the audience. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Because the play is performed without a set, without props and without costumes, actors are tasked with making Lee’s words come to life. On Tuesday, in front of an audience of around 100 attendees, Brooks and Watts alternated delivering the play’s poetic monologues. Their energy was palpable as they encouraged the audience to participate by clapping and joining them as they sang James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

As the character travels further and further through time away from 1865, the audience watches as Emancipation Jones struggles with the idea that the black community is still fighting and cautions that freedom can still be taken away.

In one poignant moment, the character reflects on how far blacks have come from the auction block and whip before remarking, “Freedom and equality are two things, not one. It’s the struggle for equality that’s not quite done.”

Brooks, who grew up in St. Louis during the civil rights movement, said the play allowed him to understand what had been accomplished in 153 years and why it was important to convey that history to a younger audience.

“Growing up, I remember seeing the fire hoses, the German shepherds,” Brooks said. “This allowed me to reflect on the people who came before me and led me to where I was. Our young people are not getting our history, they’re not getting our struggle. It’s our responsibility to make sure they do.”

(From left) Actor Carl Brooks; Charles Gentry, Ode to Juneteenth Director; Actress Charlene Watt; and Eugene Lee, Ode to Juneteenth Playwright, answer questions from the audience.
(From left) Actor Carl Brooks, Ode to Juneteenth director Charles Gentry, actress Charlene Watt and playwright Eugene Lee answer questions from the audience. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This is where gallery theater shines: By blurring the lines between the stage and the audience, visitors feel as though they’re directly interacting with Texas history. And in a world where artists of color still are still largely underrepresented, it’s powerful to witness a play written, directed, and acted by black actors telling their own history.

For Christina Cate, who oversees the gallery theater program for the Witte, the transformative and interactive aspect of the performance is one of the main motivations behind the program. When she approached Lee to gauge his interest in creating a play for the exhibit, they shared a common goal: making sure every audience member left with something they didn’t know before.

“Texas has seen more years with slavery than years without, so to think about it that way and see it that way in the play. I think you realize this is still something that’s close to us,” Cate said. “Sometimes it feels like slavery happened a million year ago, but it didn’t. This piece really shows how much progress has been made, but also shows that there’s still more to be done.”

Christina Cate, Director of Play, takes questions from the audience.
Christina Cate, the Witte Museum’s director of play, takes questions from the audience. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Following the play’s debut performance, most audience members stayed behind to discuss their experience with the cast and crew. From teachers asking how to include this in their lesson plans to parents sharing this history with their children, Lee made sure to drive home one major point.

As he got up from his chair near the stage, he approached the youngest visitors in the audience and said, “This is for you. This story will live on with you.”

Cat Cardenas is a freelance journalist from San Antonio focused on news and culture reporting.