In 1906, a perfect storm of post-Reconstruction racial resentment, yellow journalism and political grandstanding coalesced to spark events known as the Atlanta Race Riots. After a four-day spasm of mob violence and bloodshed, the outbreak was rebuffed, contained and then almost entirely buried — a forgotten, discomforting thread compared with the stories that were later used to represent Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate.” Re-examining both the riots and their subsequent erasure from memory is the challenging goal the Atlanta History Center has set for itself with its fascinating “Four Days of Fury,” running there through February 24.
Created by Atlanta History Center playwright-in-residence Addae Moon, the interactive play leads visitors through the days leading up to the riots and also into their aftermath, in which Atlanta, for better or worse, picked up the pieces and decided to move on without looking back. A narrator — based on the real historical figure J. Max Barber, editor of the newspaper “Voice of the Negro” and one of the few who argued for a truthful retelling of events — leads audience members through a series of eight scenes set up in different areas of a large downstairs exhibition space.
In 1906, we learn, racist paranoia and a close gubernatorial race helped raise tension in Atlanta to a fever pitch. Especially well done is the first of the eight stops, at an Atlanta theater, where we watch preparations for a production of the then-popular play “The Clansmen,” in which racist fears about the “brutish colored” and other stereotypes of white racial purity were given free rein.
We move on to a courtroom scene, where the scales of justice are clearly tipped, and a newspaper boy then fills us in on the yellow journalism of the day. The various scenes help give a sense of daily life. (A few audience members are asked to interact in non-threatening ways: take a non-speaking role as a defendant in the courtroom, sit in a barber’s chair as barbers discuss the news of the day, dance a simple two-step with actors in a Decatur Street bar.) Depicting a sense of citywide escalating tension is not an easy thing to do in a work of theater, but it’s one taken on successfully here in a way that certainly gives distant, buried history a sense of presence and immediacy.
And once a bit of history is unearthed, other fascinating little pieces come up with it. The history of the buttoned-down and dignified Auburn Avenue black business district is familiar to most Atlantans, and it’s discussed at some length here. But Decatur Street — an equally thriving, if seedier, racially mixed area of dive bars, music halls and burlesque theaters, which is less often discussed today — is also visited.
Many black Atlantans were arrested on trumped-up charges, which proved enormously profitable to city officials and businesses in the form of forced labor as legal punishment. “The Clansmen” later became the basis for the D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation” and influenced “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell as a child. We listen in on the gossip in a black barbershop as the barbers and their clientele give their thoughts on everything from African-American businessman Alonzo Herndon’s shop, which cut only white customers’ hair, to their own plain-spoken take on the debate between separatists and assimilationists in the black community.
Many of the words, such as those in the courtroom scenes or descriptions of the riots, are based on actual transcripts, oral histories or written accounts. The research seems thorough throughout, always connecting unfamiliar events to familiar people and places, even occasionally tracing some surprising connections to the present.
The device of using gloves to indicate a character’s race (black gloves indicate a black character regardless of the skin color of the actor) effectively emphasizes the centrality of race in that place and time. It also removes the more uncomfortable and perhaps less productively provocative statements that could result if race-based casting was used. At the beginning, the audience is randomly divided into black and white citizens who must keep to their mutually separate areas in segregated public settings, except on Decatur Street, where the audience is, appropriately, allowed to mix and sit where it pleases. A talkback follows the play, and the facilitated follow-up discussion was productive and thought-provoking.
“The city too busy to hate” could also be, in some ways, “the city too busy to remember.” Ugly truths didn’t always fit in a city that loved to put on a pretty, progressive face, and the riots, as devastating and significant as they were, still aren’t always included in histories of Atlanta. Deception may famously weave a tangled web, but an effort at a truthful retelling of a painful past can, as “Four Days of Fury” shows, weave a fascinatingly intricate web all its own.