Cooper Young

PHOTOS: Scenes from this year's Juneteenth performance and celebration at Playback Memphis

On Saturday, June 10, 2023, Playback Memphis hosted its annual Juneteenth Memphis Matters performance and celebration. The night’s atmosphere was filled with lots of tears, joy, laughter, and dancing. The opening ceremony started with libations, music, and the calling of the ancestral names of family members from the audience and cast members.

It paid homage to and celebrated the lives of the many Black people enslaved in America. As each name echoed throughout the theater, there was a sense of liberation and the feeling that we all share in the same kindred spirit.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting one of the professional ensemble members, Mr. Wayne Smith. He conducted the evening’s show. Speaking to him before the performance, this is how he summarized what the evening’s participants could look forward to.

"Tonight's show is a special way that we do our Memphis Matters. We do regular Memphis Matters shows, but the June 10th Memphis Matters specifically features an all African American, or Black, cast. And our audience is expected to be African American, indigenous, or people of color – in that vein.

"This is our third annual Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) show. In doing this kind of show, we realized the important of providing this kind of space. I mean, our shows in general are regular shows, where our cast member playback stories of the audience. Those are typically inclusive and very diverse, in terms of our audience and, of course, our company members. But we felt like we needed to do something special during the pandemic and right after the murder of George Floyd by police officers.

"We just felt like there was a need to provide space for people of color to come together and be able to share what was on their hearts and minds.

"In addition to tonight’s show, we will do libations. It is imperative that we call out the names of our ancestors and become aware and conscious that our ancestors are always with us. Both the ancestors that we grew up with – like our grandparents, our parents, etc. – but even folks that we didn't know whose shoulders I feel like we stand on every single day."

The energy was high and electric, and there was plenty of Kleenex to go around. As different members of the audience shared some of their most personal, private, and intimate stories, the talented ensemble reenacted every story line with empathy, compassion, and joy, bringing the audience to its feet.

I would like to give a personal thanks to the two ladies that attended the event and performed the sign language interpretation for the attendees that were deaf or hard of hearing. Everyone got an opportunity to walk away inspired and uplifted. What a night.

Great job, Playback Memphis.

Photos and words by Reginald Johnson.
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