Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration 2022 poster

Theater performance on social justice highlights VCU’s annual MLK celebration

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘was an extraordinarily competent and engaged social activist. … He was the Black Lives Matter movement in his day.’

Share this story

A recurring theater performance will headline MLK Celebration 2022 at Virginia Commonwealth University. The performances kick off Sunday, Jan. 16, with showings and other events at VCU and across Richmond continuing through Jan. 26.

The Conciliation Lab performance is first being held at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St., at 3 p.m. on Jan. 16. Called “Get Up, Stand Up: The Other Part of the Dream” and written for the VCU MLK celebration, it explores some of Martin Luther King’s lesser-known speeches, sermons and writing. The performance explores King’s call to action and the meaning of community in today’s world. A discussion will follow.

The Conciliation Lab was founded in Seattle and moved to Richmond in 2004 when Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Ph.D., founder of The Conciliation Lab, took a position at VCU. The company uses theater and performance to entertain and educate people about social justice. 

“We are a social justice theater company,” said Pettiford-Wates, a professor of graduate pedagogy in acting and directing in the VCU School of the Arts Department of Theatre. “Our work is about the exploration of American history through the lens of marginalized people and marginalized voices. It’s the unpacking of the American story through these people who have not been heard.” 

In addition to two performances at VCU, the company will present the show four times at community locations around Richmond, including at the Boys and Girls Club at 1830 Creighton Road and at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. 

Pettiford-Wates said King’s message is more pertinent than ever after the social unrest two summers ago and the ongoing challenges facing minority communities. People of color face an attack on voting rights, violence from law enforcement and a difficult economic environment. 

“We are essentially at a very similar point as we were in the 1960s,” Pettiford-Wates said. “The country right now is at a tipping point. I think during MLK Day celebrations in years past, people celebrated the ‘I have a dream’ speech. That resonates with a lot of people. But that is only a small part of who Martin Luther King was. He was an extraordinarily competent and engaged social activist. He was a reformer. He was the Black Lives Matter movement in his day.” 

The bottom line, Pettiford-Wates said, is that King calls people to take action. People need to do more than talk about King. They need to make changes. When asked about the key takeaway from the performance, Pettiford-Wates said people of color have made very little progress since King’s time, and that needs to energize people.

“We want people to recognize that we are not safe,” she said. “That we have not made it and we have not arrived. That Martin Luther King’s legacy informs us that there has been more slippage than progress.”

In addition to the performances, the VCU community will celebrate King’s life and legacy Jan. 15-22 with events on and off campus, including a silent candlelight vigil and march on Jan. 17 at 6 p.m. Students, faculty, staff and the VCU community will meet at the Art Depot on Broad Street and will march silently to the student commons with candles. 

Visit the MLK celebration website for more details and events.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to the theater performance as being produced by "The Conciliation Project." It is "The Conciliation Lab." The story has been updated.