Back to the Future

With Re-Writing the Declaration, playwright Quenna Barrett imagines a participatory path toward freedom

Black feminism is perpetually misunderstood. It’s either miscategorized with the “angry Black woman” trope as loud and intimidating or it’s ignored altogether. Chicago actor, director, and educator Quenna Lené Barrett—currently the associate director of education at the Goodman—took her own approach to clearing up the confusion with Re-Writing the Declaration. It’s a piece of devised theater that uses history to elevate Blackness and celebrate the beauty, strength, and intersectionality of women, non-binary, and transgender people of color. 

Barrett, whose work is in the tradition of the Theatre of the Oppressed, has been organizing with local groups and collectives, including Black Youth Project 100 and the #LetUsBreathe Collective, for years. She said in an interview that she was on a bus ride back to Chicago from a Movement for Black Lives convening, lamenting the failings of the Declaration of Independence, when prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba challenged her to do something about it, saying, “Well, you’re an artist, you should rewrite it.” Barrett said she wants to challenge her audience to ask themselves how they view Black womanhood but also to think, “How do we move forward?” and “What do we need to do right now to change the system and shake things up” to get to a place of healing?” She questions whether the United States has come to a serious place of racial reckoning, and explores what would happen should a group of BIPOC and femme students decide to take up Kaba’s challenge and rewrite the Declaration of Independence. 

Presented online from October 30 to November 8 by Free Street Theater, the piece takes the audience on a comedic, emotional, and hopeful journey with seven students and their teacher, “Miss Jefferson,” as they travel through time to 1776 and the writing of the founding national document. Together, they gradually become aware of the inequities between them and the men that crafted the text, which was neither designed nor intended to protect them.

In an often stylized manner, the performers act out the emotions (disbelief, anger, sadness) that Black and brown people, and especially Black women, typically experience after realizing just how the nation continues to fail them; that the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness claimed by the founders was for white men only. But their distress is quickly redirected into action as the class, with the help of their teacher and the audience, hilariously schemes to revise the document’s grievances so that the fabrics and foundations of this country are rooted no longer in bigotry, inequality, and oppression, but inclusivity. They rewrite it for the Rekia Boyds and Tony McDades of the nation—for those left out, or pushed out, due to their racial identity or sexual orientation. 

The play offers the full Zoom experience: boxed screens, digital backgrounds, and the occasional overlapping of multiple voices. But the free admission and comfort of viewing from home can certainly make up for that. And the virtual platform experience did not weaken the fullness of performances one would expect in live theater. In fact, the unorthodox setting serves almost to heighten the nonconformist attitudes of the characters, bringing light to all corners of eccentricity the show has to offer.

Each night a different member of Free Street acts as host. The nonprofit company has used theater to highlight social justice issues for more than fifty years. “As an artist, as a theater maker, their values align with mine,” said Barrett. 

Complete with makeshift props such as colonial wigs, and a brief impression of now-outgoing President Donald Trump, Re-Writing the Declaration doesn’t take long to give the audience what they did not know they came for but definitely needed: a belly laugh. Barrett uses comic relief to address the apparent ignorance of those who have used their race as currency, because of privilege, both past and present. The satire is just the right concoction for today’s times of stress, leaving enough room for viewers to grasp the truth. For POC, namely Black people, the jokes are a coping mechanism that fosters a shared sense of suffering. 

In short, playful scenes, the cast members expand on multiple injustices, including systematic oppression. In one of the scenes, the women parodied a Maybelline cosmetics commercial, applying makeup while listing the many ways white and non-Black individuals have used their privilege as power to discriminate against Black people, like calling the cops for non-crime related matters. At the end, they whisper the slogan, “Maybe it’s Maybelline,” followed by a sarcastic, “Maybe it’s white supremacy.” 

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In a game-show spoof called “Wheel of Restoration,” the audience is invited to amend the original grievances listed in the Declaration. In one round, audience members respond by correcting the document to include free health care, free higher education, and the decentering of white males from conversations. “I always wanted the play to be participatory,” Barrett said. “The idea is that if we open up, ‘Who gets a seat at the table?’ or ‘Who gets to say what this founding document is?’ we should all be able to do that.”

The production also offers an artistic reaction to present-day offenses like the murders of Breonna Taylor and of Black trans and queer women. But rather than being rooted in fury or sorrow, Re-Writing the Declaration is about creating joy—a place for BIPOC to find belonging and perhaps begin to heal from the trauma of systemic racism.

Members of the virtual audience are invited to join the ensemble in songs and dance during scenes that symbolize the birth of rediscovery for BIPOC. A Puerto Rican student connects with the young Black women in their shared African ancestors. One by one each performer releases the fears that once held them back from spiritual growth. “I had a vision that I was powerless,” one says. “I had a vision that I was in chains…” It is an invitation for the audience to see the power of slowing down even when stirred by outrage. “We are always fighting, and sometimes part of the fight is resting so that we can gather the strength to keep going,” Barrett said. 

When “Miss Jefferson” asks the young women what they have learned about themselves, one replies, “I am Black girl magic.” It is in this moment the audience realizes finding peace with one’s true self is the path forward to fighting against structural racism. That the journey will be enlightening just as much as it is damning, which makes it that much more beautiful.

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Danyella Wilder recently graduated with an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University. Most recently, she has written about the effects of COVID-19 in Little Village and the effects of CARES Act funding on higher education. This is her first piece for the Weekly. She is a Southern California native with a love for social justice, writing, and sustainable living. 

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