Al Letson’s Rapid-Fire Memories Make Lives Matter
by Kevin Marley
Al Letson is forced to deal with generational poverty and racism, when he consents to teach writing in a Summer Sanctuary program outside Jacksonville, Florida. Determined to make a difference, Letson struggles for respect from children who are immersed in a culture of poverty and violence. Challenged at every step, his preconceptions about teaching change when he realizes the children see writing as merely punishment.
When he confronts Biko, a South African immigrant boy, he also begins to understand what it’s like to live in a dying neighborhood. Because these children have been unheard and unseen, Letson realizes that his most powerful approach may be to simply see and listen to these children.
His story is one of heartfelt caring for American children who have been raised in poverty. His message is poignant in the face of Trumpean economics. Using rapid-fire poetic lingo, music, video, and fluid body language, Letson tells his story about hopelessness and defeat. The smell of fear unfolds as Letson describes the tale of his own upbringing as a black child in a mostly white neighborhood. And then as an adult, when he faces his fears and immerses himself into the lives of children in an American ghetto.
Letson, the handsome dread-locked savior of Jacksonville, eloquently leaps between characters, seamlessly weaving a web of discordant frustration (his) and separation (the children’s). He sets the stage to contrast “white privilege” with the unmet needs of these kids who are steeped in violence, loss, and shame. Grasping the feet of a young girl in violent crisis, Letson holds firm as the child repeatedly spits in his face. Although he wants to flee, he knows that letting go is not an option, and he holds on until she relents and reveals her despair.
But the story is also about Letson’s struggle with his own identity and purpose. Having moved as a young man from New Jersey to the South, he knows what it’s like to be an outsider. “In a crowded room I feel alone,” he says. He clearly sees part of himself in these children. He wants to fix these kids. He wants to save them from suffering and isolation, but he is confused and bewildered about how to proceed.
While on a road trip with the kids, Letson shakes the hand of a surly white cop and his brood of moody adolescents begin to accept him as one of their own. He has turned the tide towards togetherness and hope. “Summer in Sanctuary” takes us on a guided trip through challenging territory. It’s a significant and emotional journey. Don’t miss it!
“Summer in Sanctuary” by Al Letson, directed by Jennifer Welch, at The Marsh, San Francisco, California, through Saturday, April 29, 2017. Info: themarsh.org.
Cast: Al Letson