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"Dining with the Ancestors" doesn't hide the difficulty of unity

The free online one-act brings Fannie Lou Hamer, Pauli Murray, and Harriet Powers to a living room in Minneapolis.

From left to right: Aimee K. Bryant, Regina Marie Williams, Erin Nicole Festé, and Simone Bernadette. Photo by Tom Wallace.

In the Guthrie's free, online one-act, "Dining with the Ancestors" (through March 31), Minneapolis resident Vivian (Erin Nicole Festé) prays for ancestral guidance after learning that yet another Black teenager was killed by the police; civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, lawyer and priest Pauli Murray, and quilt maker Harriet Powers answer. Off this premise, I went in expecting a plethora of vulnerable moments and inspiring words bequeathed to our protagonist. What I got was a dialogue about valuing others' strengths in the face of an insidious system that thrives off in-fighting.

And yes, even these three figures fell prey to the poison, at least in this story: Fannie (played by a brilliant Aimee K. Bryant) wants to start off by feeding the soul with some recipes that feel as if they have been passed down for generations. Pauli (Simone Bernadette), more formal and brusque, wants to skip straight to discussions about how to navigate politicians and businessmen. Harriet, whose mild manner initially disguises the steel Regina Marie Williams gives her, is just trying to keep them focused on what's best for Vivian.

"Dining with the Ancestors" was conceived and creative-produced by Williams (who can still be seen in Theater Latte Da's "Twelve Blocks from Where I Live"), with the help of Daaimah Mubashshir's script, Signe V. Harriday's direction, and a song by Thomasina and Charles Petrus. Under a different team, the three historical figures may have become fairy godparents or guardian angels, but the relabeling would be a disservice here. The emphasis is on ancestral connection, blood related or not. As Williams put it in a post-show Q&A, "It's a reminder that if we open our hearts and our minds to listen, even in their death, they will continue to teach us."

"Connecting with ancestry is so much about how we also propel ourselves forward, right?" Bernadette adds in the Q&A. "And we hear this quote over and over again, like, 'I am my ancestors' wildest dreams,' and what it means to live up for that. … This is all about where we come from and bringing that to now."

After all, the unnamed youth in the news report may be fictitious, but the other names that Vivian mentions in the prayer—Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, George Floyd—are very real. And, while little things about the play's ancestors are distinctly other worldly, like the ability to turn on a lamp with a touch, they bring today's earthly hurt into the play and reflect it back on us.

(Slight ending spoiler:) The global turmoil that occurred after George Floyd's death only emphasizes that "Dining with the Ancestors" doesn't depict how Vivian finds her place in the social justice movement. Does she end up creating a show to bring attention to racial violence, both physical and nonphysical? Does she decide her strengths best lie in providing resources to protesters? Or does she have to start by simply building the courage to share her perspective with others? Although the play will remain in development and potentially be expanded into a full production, for now, what we do in our own lives will be the next act.


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