On the menu: Social justice, with a side of theater

On August 25 in Decatur, Georgia, more than 1,200 people gathered in dining rooms, community centers, restaurants, and churches, 120 locations in all, to share a meal and talk about race. Ariel Fristoe 98C was one of three masterminds of the event, known as Decatur Dinners. She shared the experience with EmoryWire.

By Ariel Fristoe 98C, Artistic Director, Out of Hand Theater

The evening began with a performance of a short play written just for the inaugural Decatur Dinners event. The play was simple—just one actor talked for 15 minutes about the experience of being black in metro Atlanta today. Then everyone helped themselves to dinner and sat down at one of the tables to talk. blah blah blah

Decatur Dinners is the brainchild of Out of Hand Theater and One Small Change, longtime hosts of Chicago Dinners, a series that begins the work of racial healing by hosting conversations among friends. Last winter, Out of Hand was producing our annual show in homes, Shaking the Wind by Minka Wiltz. Dietra Hawkins and Adria Kitchens, the women who run One Small Change, happened to attend a performance at the home of Clare Schexnyder in Decatur.

Our shows in homes are preludes to discussion, one-act performances on a social justice topic with a cocktail party and a community conversation. After everybody else had left the event at Clare’s home, Minka, Dietra, Adria, Clare and I found ourselves in Clare’s living room, bubbling with excitement, cooking up the plan for Decatur Dinners.

Out of Hand usually produces one show per night, so the idea of hosting 100 performances on the same night—and adding 100 dinners for a total of 1,000 attendees—was daunting, to say the least. But One Small Change had produced multiple dinners on the same night before (without the performance element), and we had Clare. Clare Schexnyder is a fierce lady and a remarkable community organizer. With her help, we soon brought on board City of Decatur’s Better Together Advisory Board, City Schools of Decatur, and Decatur Housing Authority, an extraordinary feat of community collaboration.

Fristoe, Schexnyder, and Hawkins

Pictured left to right: Ariel Fristoe 98C, Clare Schexnyder, and Dietra Hawkins

The event was free, the dinners were potluck, and everyone who lives, works, plays, or worships in Decatur was welcome. Each dinner had a host, a conversation facilitator, a performer, and seven or eight guests for a total of about 10 people at each table. We were aiming for 1,000 attendees at 100 tables, but interest was so great, we opened up 20 extra tables at the last minute, and we are holding 20 more dinners in September to accommodate the overflow. Dietra and Adria worked diligently to ensure a diverse mix of people at every table with a breadth of experiences and viewpoints to share.

Decatur is a special place. I’m tempted to say that this event could not have come together so swiftly or with so much community support in most other cities. But Decatur is not perfect; it struggles with many of the same issues around race that face most, if not all, American communities: inequities in income, economic mobility, housing, education, health, and criminal justice; microaggressions suffered on a daily basis by people of color.

As Bishop Claude Alexander has said so eloquently, racism is not your fault, but it is your problem. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Gracie Bonds Staples quoted Bishop Alexander, senior pastor of The Park Church, a Baptist congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a series on race and religion in July.) He was speaking about the church, but to me, his statement applies to everyone. Racism is perhaps the most pressing social problem of our time; it is everybody’s problem.

Our goal for Decatur Dinners was to create a safe space for dialogue, to deepen our community’s understanding, and to build relationships. The dinners were by turns emotional, polite, respectful, and cathartic. After the 100 performances ended and the conversations began, multitudes of black people said, “That’s my story.” Multitudes of white people said, “I can’t believe you go through this every day, and I didn’t know.” Again and again, black people answered, “Of course we do.”

Several of the dinner groups, strangers when the night began, have already made plans to continue their conversations. Our September date sold out immediately, and we are planning more dinners in November. People in other cities around the country are asking us how to bring this event to their communities.

We hope to spark a national movement—thousands of strangers joining in conversation across our great nation, in homes and secular spaces and houses of worship of all kinds, buoyed by the empathy-building power of art and the communal experience of sharing a meal.

Editor's Note: Ariel Fristoe 98C is the founder and artistic director of Out of Hand Theater, where she has been building community and promoting social justice through art since 2001.

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