When Arielle Brown went to Rwanda in 2010 she had a lot on her mind. A year before, her childhood friend Oscar Grant had been killed, and she was struggling to reconcile her personal memories of him with the way he was being portrayed by the media. “For me, he was my cousin’s first boyfriend and he was teased for having big ears,” she says. “But now he was being packed into the moment when he was murdered.” What Brown found in Rwanda was a culture very much attuned to the importance of collective memory. The gacaca, public trials in which whole villages would gather to discuss the atrocities of the genocide, had just come to an end. Inspired by these public forums, Brown, a playwright and teacher of theater, thought a similar model could be applied to American communities afflicted by gun violence. So she created the Love Balm Project, a collection and presentation of testimonies from mothers who have lost sons. “I felt it was so powerful that [in Rwanda] the surviving family had a chance to speak,” she said. “Here you’re supposed to sit in the back and muffle yourself while [the media] crafts some story.”
Brown was living in Atlanta when the project started in 2011, but wanted to focus on her native Oakland. She explained her idea to Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, who got the ball rolling by introducing her to a number of mothers who were willing to speak with her about the pain of losing their sons. Brown took down their testimonies before recruiting actors to present them.
The project began with staged readings by actors and was eventually made into a play, which ran at the East Side Arts Alliance last November. Along with the theater performances, Brown arranged for a number of free, public readings in the exact locations where each young man was killed. Most recently, Ayanna Davis remembered her son Khatari Gant, who died at 25 when he was shot 29 times in a van in front of his father’s house in North Oakland.
“In the night I am forever striving against the desire to call Khatari back… The wanting of his life. The need for fulfillment of his dreams. The desire for unborn grandchildren. The witness of love that would have brought them forward and given itself to new generations. And given itself to new generations.”
-Excerpt from Ayanna Davis’s testimony
Khatari’s brother, Tyehimba, was also in the van, along with another friend, who Davis thinks was the target. “Everybody assumed that just because his brother had some weed on him it was drug related,” she said. But Davis says her son was at a very clearheaded point in his life. Not only was he not drinking or doing drugs, he barely ate meat and was considering going vegan. He wanted to leave the Bay Area, in part because he hoped to escape the violence that often seemed to trap young black men there. In one of the last long conversations they had, he told his mother his goal was to become a high school principal.
Davis was the only mother of the six Brown spoke with to read her own testimony – something she says she did both to address her grief, and also to “bear witness” to who her son was.
For many mothers, says Ayodele Nzinga, the Director of the Lower Bottom Playaz, reliving the loss is simply too hard. “The pain is always too fresh,” she said. “They belong to a special club that nobody wants to be in.”
Nzinga nearly joined this club herself when her youngest son was shot three times in a South Berkeley convenience store. He survived, and she instead performed the testimony of Bonnie Johnson, Oscar Grant’s grandmother, at the Fruitvale BART station this past August. “This project gives [these women] the opportunity to create a counter-narrative,” she says. “If you really want to know who Oscar Grant is, ask his grandmother.”
Despite the open nature of the public performances, one of the difficulties of the Love Balm Project has been in reaching the male audience that is most likely to be involved in acts of violence. None of the fathers have participated in the testimonies, in most cases due to their absence in the lives of the victims, says Brown.
“We’ve been very conscious of the need and desire for young men themselves to be present so that the killing doesn’t become normalized,” Nzinga says.
She remembers one case of a young boy who kept riding by on his bike during a rehearsal. Eventually, she called him over and he told her that a friend of his had passed away. Nzinga made him promise to come the next day. “On the last performance he was on his bike, and he stopped and he walked over and he watched,” she says.
“When it was over he was crying.”
The sixth and last public testimony will take place in downtown San Jose this weekend, a performance in recognition of Arielle Brown’s cousin, Daniel Booker, who was killed in December of 2009. The future of the project is uncertain, but Brown is trying to raise money to open a Love Balm Institute to train other artists interested in working with their communities on similar projects.
“When young, old, male and female, can get together and acknowledge that we have pain and grief and loss,” Nzinga said, “then there’s healing.”