Arts, On Campus

‘Hellfighter’ Play Explores History of Systemic Racism

As executive director of the social justice theatre company Dialogues on Diversity, Ron Jones said he strives to inform others on systematic racism, appreciate diversity, and foster inclusion by blending history and theatre. His educational mission, as he refers to it, is to create “theatrical social studies lessons.”

The event with Jones was sponsored by the Carroll School of Management’s Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics and was presented with the Portico program on Oct. 26 via Zoom. Jones performed Hellfighter, a play about the progression of a Black family through four generations. The play derives its title from a highly decorated military regiment from US history: the 369th or the 15th New York National Guard of World War I and World War II, also known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

Jones designed Hellfighter to give audiences a multigenerational view of the struggles Black Americans and other people of color face as they try to live out the “American Dream,” he said.

Jones began by highlighting why Hellfighter and his other theatrical works are important and relevant today. He said he “believed that this country has never fully embraced its constitutional mandate of being that place where all people are considered and treated equally.”

Denying equality to others, he said, is a result of “systems and institutions that get in the way of people’s dignity,” which can only be understood if people see how inequalities have played out over time. Jones said he does not think it’s a good idea to deny or ignore the past—even if it may be ugly—and that is why these performances are extremely relevant. 

Jones’ Hellfighter focuses on the perception of Black men, a group subjected to negative perceptions that eventually became the presiding stereotypes for these groups. Jones also focused on military groups that were composed of minorities, race massacres, the National Housing Act of 1934 that legalized redlining, the GI Bill of WWII, suburban hatred, and how all the aforementioned events create lessons for today.

Ron Jones plays all the roles in Hellfighter, including the grandson of Needham Roberts, the Black family’s patriarch born at the turn of the 20th century who was himself a Hellfighter. In this play, the grandson, who is also the unnamed narrator, looks back on the lessons he wished he didn’t have to learn but was forced to confront. During World War I, Black Americans believed that if they fought bravely then it would be proof enough to gain full citizenship, according to Jones. Yet when they were sent abroad to help the French, the Americans told them they would not represent the United States military.

Even after defeating almost 30 Germans in a sneak attack, the Black soldiers did not return to a warm welcome when they returned to the United States. They were welcomed to a country filled with bitterness and engulfed in race massacres and riots. Like other Black veterans of that time, many of the “Hellfighters” were not given any health or retirement benefits they needed. 

While Roberts fares a little better, he is not spared from the effects of the National Housing Act of 1934. This law permitted redlining, making it legal to not sell houses to people of color in the suburbs based on their race. Thus, it makes sense that Roberts’ son would want to join the military during World War II to do what his father had been unable to accomplish: to bring pride and prestige to the Black community. Yet after being discharged, he—like so many other soldiers of color—is denied his GI Bill benefits. These benefits for veterans, which still exist today, include having college, graduate school, and training programs paid for by the U.S. government.

Regardless, the narrator’s father is able to pay his way through college and save up enough money to afford living in the suburbs and fulfill the “American Dream.” Yet, even then, buying houses in the predominantly white suburbs prove difficult when some white residents do not want to sell their houses to or live next to Black people. This division morphs into hatred from white neighbors, prompting one to throw a brick through his house’s window, and hitting and blinding his mother. 

In Jones’ production, he questions how a group of people who fought for the liberty and freedom that many Americans enjoy today could still be victims of racial injustice. Hellfighter portrays a natural progression of the story of one family who grapples with this question, enabling the audience to understand why systems in America must be redesigned so that all people can experience equality.

Featured image courtesy of Ron Jones

Correction Nov. 29, 11:06 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that the lecture was hosted by the Carroll School of Management’s Portico program. The event was sponsored by the Carroll School of Management’s Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics and was presented with the Portico program.

November 4, 2020
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