Monday, January 11, 2016

CPT’s INCENDIARIES HOUGH 1966, thought-provoking but problematic

July 18, 1966 is a day that will long be noted in the Cleveland community.  That hot, muggy day festered into what is now called “The Hough Riots.”

With the purpose of examining what happened, what caused the turmoil, what is the legacy of the burning and destruction, Cleveland Public Theatre and Ohio City Theatre Project, have developed and are staging the world premiere of INCENDIARIES HOUGH 1996.

The specific cause of the riots has never been established, but it appears that there were underlying social problems, as well as distrust for the police, over-reaction to minor incidents, racial hatred, and decades of disinvestment.

Cleveland’s Hough area had at one time been a vital, up-scale, prosperous area  in the vicinity of The Cleveland Art Museum, Severance Hall (the home of the Cleveland Orchestra), Western Reserve and Case Technology universities, a vibrant East 105 and Euclid entertainment district.  The homes, many of which were built in the mid-to-late 1920s and early 30s, were owned by white upward mobile families. 

The depression, the Second World War, development of inner-ring suburbs and forced busing resulted in white flight, producing a major shift in population. 

At the time of the riots, it is estimated that the area, which was by that time noted as one of the poorest in the city, was over 96% black.  Many single family homes had been divided into multi-family units, with absentee landlords, who lived outside the area.  The once world-class school system of Cleveland had deteriorated, the major food chains had abandoned the area, the small mom and pop stores were charging excessive prices for inferior products, and many of the recreational facilities had closed.

What set off the riots?  Several investigations lead to the possible spark.  The temperature and humidity were oppressive.  Many wanting to escape the heat congregated out-of-doors.  Supposedly, in order to keep non-payers to stay out, someone posted a sign outside the 79’ers Bar on the southeast corner of E. 79th and Hough, at the lower end of the neighborhood.  The message read, “No Water for Niggers.”  The white bar manager and bouncer patrolled in front of the bar with shotguns. 

When a black woman, who was later described as a prostitute, came in “seeking money for charity,” and a black male, who bought a bottle of wine and then asked for some water were forcibly evicted, a crowd gathered, the police arrived, brick-throwing erupted, gunfire followed, and rumors spread.

In the following days, a black mother of three was shot, James Rhodes, the same governor who called out the National Guard at Kent State, activated the 1600 local members of the Guard and sent them into Hough.  Arsonists attacked abandoned houses and white-owned enterprises.  A 38-year old black man was killed while going to help his friend protect his business. 

Before it was over the tension had spread to other near-by areas.  In “Little Italy,” 40-blocks away from the epi-center, a trio of white men shot a black man sitting in his car. 

Fortunately, heavy rains fell on July 24, which cooled off both the weather and human temperatures. 

The physical and property damage was excessive and even today there is little trust between the police and the black community.  Race relations in the city, especially on the east side, which is almost totally African American, in spite of massive efforts, is often close to incendiary. 

INCENDIARIES, a co-production between Cleveland Public Theatre and Ohio City Theatre Project, was conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson.  It is the kick-off piece of “Road to Hope,” a series of performing arts events that celebrates hope and honors Cleveland’s history.

The script recounts the generally agreed upon incidents of the riots…the now infamous “No Water for Negroes” sign, the various shootings, lootings, and police and National Guard actions.

Staged in a choreographed dance format, a table and chairs are used to create walls, doors, hiding places, cars and the various setting where the incidents took place.  The seven-person cast, two white, five African Americans, portray multi-characters. 

Robertson has chosen to incorporate much pounding and noise to help create the auditory sounds of riot, as well as build up the emotional level of the audience to be participants rather than observers.   It is an effective device, but, as sometime happens with a device, it becomes too much.  The sounds often drown out the spoken words.  Eighty or so minutes of screaming and pounding soon takes over the psyche.  It’s too much with no pauses, no texturing of the decibel levels.

The cast, Brittni Shambaugh Addison, Wesley Allen, Ashley Aquilla, Laprise Johnson, Daniel McNamara, Randi Renee, and Chris Walker, who helped in creating the piece, generally developed the intent of the endeavor.

Benjamin Gantose’s lighting design helped intensify the mood.

Following the staging, a discussion/talk back was conducted.  Those of us who teach about group discussion* know that for any hope of success, there must be a clearly stated purpose, and a structured format.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The coordinator, who stood on one side of the audience was not able to create the needed physical and emotional contact with the intended participants, and failed to clearly state the purpose of the after-show experience.  It was often difficult to hear those who spoke because there was only one microphone.  The idea was commendable, the execution was weak.

Capsule judgement: Cleveland Public Theatre and Ohio City Theatre Project should be praised for undertaking the showcasing of an era in Cleveland history that tells an important tale.  The overall effect, except for the talk-back session, was a good example of how theater can be a conduit for sharing historical and sociological information and creating insightful intra-thought.

INCENDIARIES HOUGH 1966, runs through January 23, 2016  at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

*Personal disclosure:  I hold a doctorate in Human Communication and have facilitated, researched and written about group sessions.