Playback Memphis uses improvisational theater to build trust and empathy, and its in-school residencies at two Frayser elementary schools are helping one of Memphis’ most underserved neighborhoods reemerge as a strong and vibrant community of choice.
Gabrielle Cole, an ensemble member with Playback Memphis, stretches her arms towards the ceiling as her partner, ten-year-old Louis, flattens himself against the cafeteria floor. They keep eye contact and switch seamlessly into their next positions as they mimic and contrast each other’s movements with smiles and sharp focus.
Though they’re decades apart in age, Cole and Louis both benefit from Playback Memphis’ Be the Peace! program.
Gabrielle Cole and her partner, Louis, 10, make contrasting shapes with their bodies as part of a series of movement exercises. (Cole Bradley)Playback is an international organization with chapters in more than 70 countries. Its mission is to use improvisational theater to help members of diverse communities recognize their shared experiences and use that empathy to engage civic spirit and address shared challenges.
In Memphis, Playback it made its public debut in 2009 with its inaugural Memphis Matters show. Performed bimonthly, Memphis Matters is a night for Memphians to share perspectives, listen to others and see their collective stories brought to life in “playbacks”—short, reflective skits using movement, music, metaphor, and spoken improvisation—by the Playback Memphis professional ensemble, which is comprised of 12 local professional actors and musicians.
In 2014, Playback Memphis launched its second big endeavor, Performing the Peace, in collaboration with the Memphis Police Department and Lifeline to Success, a Frayser-based organization that helps previously incarcerated individuals reintegrate into their communities.
The program pairs seven police officers with seven previously incarcerated individuals. The groups share stories and work to understand each other’s perceptions, motivations and behaviors. Playback theater is used to create authentic relationships that can begin breaking down the systematic barriers to community-police relations.
It was Performing the Peace that introduced Cole to both Playback Memphis and acting. While enrolled in Lifeline to Success, Cole jokes that she and other promising participants were “volun-told” for the program by Lifeline’s executive director, DeAndre Brown.
Today, Cole is a dedicated member of Playback Memphis. “Now it’s a choice, and it’s a choice I’m glad I made. I’m doing stuff I never thought I’d do,” she said of the improvisational theater program.
She and a handful of other Performing the Peace alum are now members of Playback Memphis’ fledgling apprentice ensemble, a group of five actors who are practicing their acting skills on the way to full ensemble membership with Playback Memphis.
“It ain’t all about acting, it’s mostly about me trying to learn and be around different people. Trying to better myself,” said apprentice ensemble member LaSalle Pratt. “Playback helps me get out of my box, to see myself in a different way. I never thought I’d be acting. It’s different, and it’s good for me.”
Now that the program is in its third year, Perform the Peace alumni have taken what they’ve learned and identified new ways to utilize the playback acting model in Frayser.
“We wanted the officers and [previously] incarcerated to decided how they would expand,” said Virginia Reed Murphy, Playback Memphis’ executive director. “What was articulated was wanting to root the work in Frayser.”
For the previously incarcerated folks, the goal was to use playback theater to advance what they felt was the larger community’s goal of restoring Frayser as a strong, safe and vibrant community of choice. They chose to focus on the neighborhood’s youth in the hopes that early intervention might keep the next generation from the path they’d walked.
From this vision, the Be the Peace! youth program was born.
“The reason that this work exists is because they said, ‘If I had had Playback in the fifth grade, my life might have taken a different turn,' and I want these kids to have that,” said Murphy,
According to Playback Memphis' data, nearly 80 percent of Frayser’s children live below the federal poverty line, and its crime rate is over 200 percent above the national average. Over half of people living in Shelby County report at least one adverse childhood experience, such as loss of a parent or family abuse, and that figure increases in areas of extreme disinvestment like Frayser.
Frayser’s schools and families are chronically underserved and are often unable to fully address their children’s complex social and emotional needs. Schools like Corning Elementary say they are desperate for opportunities to strengthen social-emotional learning and build a positive school culture informed by the realities of trauma and survival.
“These are kids coming into school with PTSD, they’re hungry, they’re living in households and neighborhoods where unspeakable violence is the norm and they’re stressed out,” said Murphy.
All of these factors significantly impact a student’s ability to learn.
“In order for them to be able to have the quality of attention you need to be able to learn, you have to meet them where they are. They have to have emotional wellness first, it just doesn’t work the other way,” Murphy added.
Playback Memphis creates a space for honest conversations about distressing events and how to relax the body and recenter the mind in moments of chaos, bullying or trauma.
For Dr. Danielle Harris, principal at Corning Elementary, Playback is a critical part of the culture she and her staff are building. “[Playback] serves as an additional arm in the way that we wrap around our students,” she said.
“There is no FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] for children. When exactly in the academic day do they get to say, ‘I cannot focus on your work because I saw my uncle killed’ or ‘that was my dad they arrested and I was in the backseat?,’” Harris explained.
“You have to educate the whole child, and one way we do that at Corning is by partnering with organizations such as Playback.”
Be the Peace! ran a brief pilot in spring and launched officially in August for the 2017 to 2018 school year.
Students, professional ensemble members, apprentice ensemble members and Playback Memphis staff meet once a week with fifth graders at Corning and Frayser elementary schools.
They practice mindful breathing, meditation and movement. While the bulk of each week is spent engaged in theater games to develop focus, concentration, discipline, listening and teamwork, the participants see safety and support as the program’s foundations.
Frayser students and Playback Memphis actors strike a pose with each person creating their own unique interpretation of a "low and wide shape." (Cole Bradley)
“We really are intentional about giving and receiving welcome….We regard them. Every time they come in we talk about how wise they are, their strengths. We lift them up,” said Murphy.
The sessions also focus on understanding the impact of trauma and survival responses like fight, flight, or freeze. Students have an opportunity to tend to their inner lives and connect to how they’re feeling
“They’re unbelievably honest and wise and know exactly what they need. They understand how much they need a space to be able to share what’s happening and how they’re feeling about it. It helps them to resolve conflict peacefully,” Murphy said.
Less than four months in and the results are undeniable.
“It’s incredible….I’m beginning to see the emergence of bigger character. Not character, they already had it, but it’s bigger,” Harris beams. “They say, ‘I’m doing the right thing just because.’ or ‘I’m not going to mess with him because you don’t know what he has going on in his life.’ They speak up for their friends.” Being kind is suddenly more important than being cool.
Geniece, 10, says it’s about peace. “It’s peace in me. Not to fight. If someone says something, just forgive them. Sometimes people say mean things.”
Louis, 10, sees the value in a safe space to talk. “A lot of people don’t like to listen. [Here] you get to talk about your problems if you have any.”
Pratt, an apprentice ensemble member, agrees. “They can tell their stories, things they’ve been holding on to for so long. They get to know each other, and realize I’ve got the same story, I’m going through that too. It helps to see that played back. It helped me what I first started out. I think that’s very powerful.”
Geniece and her partner Khrystal, both 10, communicate through movement as part of a Playback Memphis exercise. (Cole Bradley)With the early success of the Be the Peace! program, Playback Memphis is looking forward.
The next big goal is establishing a children’s ensemble. They’d also like to see police officers from the local Old Allen precinct and officers in the apprentice ensemble working side-by-side with both students and previously incarcerated ensemble members in a sort of trifecta of civic relationship building.
Cole would like to see their work move on to older kids, giving her and her fellow apprentices additional opportunities to positively impact the Frayser community. “Ms. Virginia [Murphy] has instilled in us [the skills for playback]. We instill it in them, they take our place as we move up, and then they pass it on down the line,” she says.
For everyone involved the ultimate goal is that the work they do inside two elementary school cafeterias will spread to the entire Frayser community.
Murphy sees the apprentice ensemble as the first and best opportunity to expand Playback’s reach across the neighborhood. “We have individuals who have been exactly where these children are, who have survived enormous amounts of complex traumas and ended up making choices that resulted in them being incarcerated and now have chosen a new positive direction in their life.
They have a sort of cultural knowledge and presence. They’re in Frayser every day; they live there. They see these kids in the street, so it ripples out. When they relate to each other in the streets with the same quality of goodwill and love, it’s a theater of love. That’s really what we’re doing here.”
“I was in the community in a negative way, now I’m in the community in a positive way,” said Cole. “Ms. Virginia [Murphy] isn’t with them, but I am. I see them on the street, I see their parents. I tell them about Playback, encourage them to watch their kids.”
That ‘theater of love’ also extends back to and helps keep Cole and other apprentice ensemble members on a positive path. While they’re working diligently to rebuild their lives, the draw of gangs, drugs, and the quick rewards of crime can be strong.
“In many respects, you're delivering two programs at once,” said Murphy. “These are individuals who are still very much one foot in the life and they need this as much as the kids do. These kids look up to them, they consider them role models. So now any choice that they’re making, they have to say, ‘All of these kids see me in this light, so what does it mean that I’m about to go do this.’”
They know the kids are watching. They know the kids are wise and strong and know too well what they need. They know life has taught them too soon about trauma and stress.
But they also that at their core, they’re just kids who need more than anything to move and talk and create. Eleven-year-old Kavion, wiggling with excitement as he watches the final skit of the final hour of the final day before fall break, articulates what is ultimately the most important thing to any fifth-grader—“Playback is just a lot of fun.”