I had the opportunity to see Serial Blackface, a world premiere play by Janine Nabers, at Actor’s Express in Atlanta on Wednesday, 6 April. Serial Blackface is about the struggles of a low income mother and daughter dealing with the disappearance of a younger son, set against the backdrop of what has become known as the Atlanta Child Murders, but which residents at the time primarily knew as Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Children. While I found the story to be compelling in its own right, I was somewhat disappointed by the attempt to connect it to the Child Murders. Granted, any depiction of that period in Atlanta’s history is going to fall far short of portraying the fear and confusion which gripped the city those two years, but the events of Serial Blackface could just as easily be set in any period of Atlanta’s history, up to and including the current day without losing the focus of the story.
In most depictions of Atlanta I see or read, I often find it difficult to recognize my hometown and Serial Blackface is no exception. While there were news reports on the television that was on throughout the play which sounded authentic, I felt no connection to the city portrayed in the fictional reality. For instance, in real life, from the moment the killings became well publicized, most, including the media, referred to the killer as the “child snatcher” and of victims being “snatched” because that’s how family members referred to the killer in interviews. The sex industry in Atlanta, characterized by strip clubs and X-rated movies, is mentioned in the play, but I saw no evidence of the consistent and sometimes comical efforts of Atlanta, and in particular Fulton County, to curtail the activities. I also felt none of the conflict between Atlanta’s city hall downtown and the monied interests in Buckhead, represented by the Chamber of Commerce, which was a very large part of the tragedy of the killings at the time. The theme of dealing with the loss of a child and not knowing where or even if to assign blame is universal and only mildly informed by connecting it to the events in Atlanta at that time. While the play revolves around a lower middle class black family, I recognized many of the characters and situations I knew from West End, the lower middle class white neighborhood in which I was raised, before it became a so-called “transitional” neighborhood in the early 70s. The play is less about color and more about class and the desperation inherent in trying to raise a family and deal with a tragedy when resources are taxed beyond their limits.
Nothing in the play is firmly connected to the Child Murders except for one or two explicit mentions, one involving identification of a victim — which was very evocative of the times and used the name of an actual victim — and another featuring a victims’ support group. The authenticity of the story comes from the timeless situation of its characters making horribly bad choices for all the wrong reasons, and failing to take responsibility for their actions which exacerbates their suffering. Remove the specific references to the Child Murders or set the action in a different era, and the play would not lose any of its power. The overall plot does contain considerable irony with regards to predatory behavior found in a given segment of society, but again, this could be divorced from the subject of the Child Murders without significantly altering the action of the play.
As an Atlanta native, certain events are engrained in my memory, and the Atlanta Child Murders looms the largest. I got my drivers license the year the first bodies were found and graduated from high school the year Wayne Williams was arrested. I was not much older than the average age of the victims and younger than the two grown men Williams was convicted of killing. While I was not in the demographic most traumatized by the killings, it was impossible to live in Atlanta at that time and not be affected. The killings literally happened all around us. One body was found within a few hundred yards of the elementary school my brothers were attending at the time along a route I used to travel coming home from school when I was in the eighth grade at South Fulton a few years before. Every few days, the front page of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution carried a list and photos of the victims and I still remember the names of many of them, including Lubie Jeter, Patrick Baltazar, Darren Glass, and Jo Jo Bell.
Children were disappearing and bodies being found at least two or three times a month, and the leadership of Atlanta seemed powerless to address the tragedy. Children were abducted from Memorial Drive to Camp Creek Parkway and dumped in places such as East Point and Cliftondale, along Buford Highway in DeKalb County and in the woods on Redwine Road. Oftentimes all that was found were bones and fragments of clothing making it impossible to determine how they died. Just as everyone was affected, everyone had theories about the killings. Among the more prominent was the rumor of a child sex ring involving high level city officials, and numerous reports of a black man and white woman enticing young kids to get in their car. While the official conclusion was that Wayne Williams was the sole killer, it’s doubtful a single person was responsible for all the deaths. My own belief at the time was that Williams had some involvement but didn’t commit all the killings himself.
In his book The List, Chet Dettlinger, a former investigator on the case, also raises the specter of a child sex ring along with other possibilities, and establishes a geographic pattern for the killings. Suggestions in the press that, in some cases, the families were being investigated were met with a considerable outcry from the community, as well as criticism of how long it took officials to acknowledge the problem. Once the leadership admitted something was wrong, many criticized how quickly the killings became politicized. There was also considerable controversy about who was included on the official list and who wasn’t — many believe the actual number of murders was much higher. The national news media largely got the story wrong, popping in during sweeps periods or whenever some high profile national figure showed up to demand answers or express outrage. Local media stuck with the case full-time, from gut-wrenching interviews with grieving mothers to allegations that money from the victims’ fund was being misappropriated for tummy tuck operations and new cars.
In general, Atlanta doesn’t handle high profile crimes very well, whether it’s the rape and murder of a poor Irish girl in 1913 or the deaths of twenty-nine children and adults between 1979-1981. The city cultivates a reputation for being a great place to live and do business, and events which tarnish that reputation tend to get swept under the carpet quickly. Many breathed a sigh of relief when a splash heard in the waters of the Chattahoochee river beneath the James Jackson Parkway bridge led to the arrest of Wayne Williams, and the FBI’s complicated fiber evidence tied him to many other cases with which he’d not been charged. The fact is, Williams was convicted of killing two adults, Jimmy Ray Payne, age 21, and Nathaniel Cater age 28. It was discovery of Cater’s body in the river a few days after the infamous splash which led authorities to focus on Williams as the prime suspect. Since bodies were discovered in numerous cities and counties, there were jurisdictional issues which complicated the trial and limited the crimes Williams could be tried for in Fulton County. The notion that the killings stopped after Williams was arrested has been disputed by Dettlinger among other critics.
Serial Blackface is a compelling play which presents the audience with a family spiraling out of control and a mother’s misguided attempts to regain stability at any cost. It shows us that all actions have consequences and by failing to consider those consequences, bad situations can quickly become much worse. While I was not always certain of the motives behind each character’s choices, I found the characters believable and relatable. I believe the play suffers by tying itself to the events of the Atlanta Child Murders, because it adds a good deal of weight to the play that the story is unable to support. That being said, I do applaud the playwright for reminding us of this dark time in Atlanta’s history and providing us with a stark lesson that there’s still much work to do if we’re to become a truly egalitarian society. If this work helps to get the conversation started, it has served its subject matter well.