On the third Sunday of April, nearly 200 friends and strangers gathered around their devices to watch a pair of lungs try to work—and try to speak.
In the 10-minute play My Breath Away, Danielle Deadwyler portrayed the failing lungs of a Black woman suffering from COVID-19. Gabrielle Fulton’s one-woman play was part of Equitable Dinners: Lift Every Voice, a series of free virtual dinners hosted by the Atlanta-based Out of Hand Theater.
“Theatre artists are great at telling stories, and great at opening people’s minds through stories,” said Out of Hand artistic director and co-founder Ariel Fristoe. “But the power of that is limited if you go to the theatre and come home again and never talk to anybody else.”
Equitable Dinners, which will host its next event on May 17, seeks to start that conversation.
The idea of mixing dinner, theatre, and conversations about race and racism began in August 2019 when a mother in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur wanted to do something about the disparities between students of color and their white peers in their local school district. The result was Decatur Dinners, which brought neighbors together around a potluck dinner table to see a short play in someone’s home and then engage in a facilitated conversation.
Through the Decatur Dinners, a total of 1,200 community members came together in 120 different dining rooms and community halls across the city on Aug. 25, 2019 to discuss issues in their community and how to bring about change. Soon unprecedented numbers of people volunteered for the city’s strategic planning program, more people of color ran and got elected to local government, Fristoe said, and voting increased—all results that Out of Hand credits in part to Decatur Dinners.
In response, the theatre sought a way to replicate this format in the greater Atlanta area. Its plan had been to host 5,000 community members through the newly titled Equitable Dinners series throughout the month of September 2020. But due to COVID-19, it has postponed that in-person plan until September 2021.
In the meantime, Out of Hand realized that its community was still craving the connection Equitable Dinners could provide, so they found a way to make the dinners virtual.
The theme of the dinner series is “Setting the Table for Racial Equality” and will include six virtual dinners, held on the third Sunday of every month from April to September. Those interested in virtually attending can register on Out of Hand’s website. The first dinner focused on health equity, while future dinners will discuss education, economic equity, housing, and voting equity.
After each month’s play, an industry expert provides context and an opportunity to connect with the other playgoers in discussion. “What we want to do at Out of Hand,” Fristoe said, “is to harness the living power of theatre to open hearts and minds and turn strangers into friends—to purposely put strangers who wouldn’t normally interact in the same room together and have community conversation with a knowledgeable expert. And we have found that food is the magic last ingredient to that.”
Fittingly, then, the May 17 play-and-dinner will address food equity. “When It Pops is written from the perspective of a mother who is learning how to can (vegetables) in order to be able to provide for her family,” said Amina McIntyre, the Equitable Dinners playwright for May. “She does have a spouse, and she has four children. And even though they have a salary, they’re just not able to make all of their ends meet.”
Were this happening in person, the host would provide a main dish for the meal and all of the attendees would bring a dish to pass. The participants cover the ground rules, outlining the need for respectful conversation, which is then followed by the 10-minute play and the conversation.
By contrast, the virtual setting uses Zoom breakout rooms to replicate this model. After an introduction from Out of Hand and the performance of the play, participants are then randomly assigned to discussion rooms. Zoom’s breakout feature creates a video chat with only a few other viewers and a designated facilitator, who is given a list of questions related to the evening’s topic.
“The dinners are just a tool to connect people,” said Adria Kitchens, Equitable Dinners’ program manager, “to share information about what’s actually happening in our world in terms of disparities and inequities, and also then to activate them to take anti-racist action.”
April’s event had 180 attendees, and Fristoe expects that number to increase each month, with a goal of nearly 5,000 attendees in homes and group dining halls by September. “We’ve never done anything that had this size impact before,” she said.
The virtual format has allowed for participants outside the Peach State to participate, with at least one April Equitable Dinner diner tuning in from overseas. What began in the four-mile-wide suburb of Decatur has spread far beyond the city limits. “We are in a time where human solidarity has never been more important,” said Jill Savits, the host of April’s virtual dinner.
Dr. Camara Jones, an epidemiologist and the former president of the American Health Association, was the expert in April’s discussion of health equity, particularly as it pertained to COVID-19. After Deadwyler’s April performance of My Breath Away, Jones defined racism for the purpose of the evening’s discussion and noted the ways racism disproportionately disadvantages certain individuals and communities, while privileging others.
“Racism is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks,” she explained. “There is nothing genetically different about Black people. We are not more susceptible. We are more exposed because of the types of jobs we have. We are less protected because once we get infected, the chronic preexisting conditions that we bear help us get sicker.”
As Jones’s April presentation continued, she emphasized the need for communities to come together and talk about these rampant issues, especially in a format like the one provided by Equitable Dinners.
“We need more conversations around our dinner tables, including tonight,” Jones said, “about how racism saps the strength of a whole society so that we have more people feeling a sense of urgency to dismantle this system and put in its place a system where all people can develop to their full potential.”
Out of Hand does what it can to continue the dinner discussions by following up individually with every participant. After each meal, it asks the attendees to commit to taking some action to confront racism—be it voting, volunteering, or hosting another dinner.
“We ask people, ‘What action will you commit to taking?’ and then we check in with them to see, ‘Have you taken that action yet?’ and encourage them to actually do it,” Fristoe said. “So then that conversation turns into action, which can change the world.”
Victoria Mescall is a Magazine, Newspaper, and Online Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.