Playwright Nikkole Salter explores apology and forgiveness through the lens of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots.
Nikkole Salter has never been to Oklahoma.
“Nor do I have any connections other than my interest in the historic event of the Tulsa Race Riot,” she says.
In 1921, a mob of more than 200 white Tulsans attacked the black community in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa. Erupting the evening of May 31 and continuing through the night and into June 1, smoke filled the sky as fires throughout the neighborhood blazed. More than 16 hours of conflict left thousands of black residents homeless, 42 city blocks reduced to ash and hundreds of black lives lost. This year marked the 94th anniversary of the tragedy, one that many believe has never gotten the historical attention it deserves.
Can inherited wounds be healed? What is our responsibility to do so? Is there such a thing as an injury that cannot be repaired? What is the nature of apology? What are the costs of admission? The costs of denial?
“Before writing [Repairing A Nation] I had never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot,” Salter said in a video interview with Crossroads Theatre Company. “[I] didn’t know what it was or how it existed. … Though the play doesn’t teach about the Tulsa Race Riot, the context of that is very much alive, and I find that people do learn about the event in ways they didn’t know before.
“I used the event as a context of a play that explores reparations, inherited wounds and the nature of relationship between apology and reconciliation,” Salter says. “I want [the audience] to have the riot brought to their awareness as an important part of the American narrative. I also would like for them to consider why the topic of reparations is so complex.
Salter, a Los Angeles-born playwright, writer and OBIE Award-winning actress, has written six full-length plays. Her latest, Repairing A Nation, saw its first production in February and May of this year on the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre’s stage in New Brunswick, N.J.
Under the spotlight, the Davis family, “embodiments of the different arguments surrounding the theme of reparations,” Salter says, gets together during a holiday in their home town of Tulsa. Set 80 years after the Tulsa Race Riots, Lois Davis insists the family join a class-action lawsuit for reparations.
“[It’s based off] Johnny Cochran and Charles Ogletree’s suit against Oklahoma state,” Salter says. “Many of the details were fudged for dramatics, but the case is based on their efforts.”
In 2003, Chohran and Ogletree were part of the legal team that represented five survivors of the riot and filed suit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma. The case was dismissed, citing statute of limitations.
“Can inherited wounds be healed? What is our responsibility to do so? Is there such a thing as an injury that cannot be repaired? What is the nature of apology? What are the costs of admission? The costs of denial?” are some of the questions Repairing A Nation addresses, according to Salter.