While in the Air Force stationed in Biloxi, Miss., Mark Cryer came home to find the words "Nigger Go Home" scrawled across his door. Nearly 25 years later, Cryer, an assistant professor of theatre at Hamilton, was brought back to that very moment when, in 2000, a racial slur was scribbled across a student's door.
"The entire campus was in an uproar. Students were mad as hell and held a series of rallies, town meetings and e-mail campaigns," Cryer recalled. "I kept seeing the same people saying the same thing: Racism is bad. They were, in effect, preaching to the choir.
"While I applauded their activism, I questioned their long-term commitment to addressing the root of the problem: We don't know each other, except as the 'other.'"
Cryer's original one-person play, 99 Questions You've Always Wanted to Ask an African-American but Were Too Afraid to Ask, was inspired by these events. The play challenges socially constructed norms by creating an environment that fosters a dialogue about race. "I wanted the audiences to view race from a new perspective," Cryer explained, "but I wanted them to be entertained as well."
The development and production of 99 began the summer after the incident at Hamilton. Cryer received an Emerson Scholars grant that allowed him to work with a student, Jared Johnson '02, to gather the materials needed to write the script. "I purchased a video camera and sent him to New York City for the summer with a single edict: Ask anyone and everyone if they have a question they've always wanted to ask an African-American but were too afraid to ask," Cryer said.
Meanwhile on campus, Cryer posed the same question via an all-campus e-mail. "The response was overwhelming," he said. "I received questions that had been expected, but many that were a complete surprise. Two extremely poignant questions stood out for me. The first was: 'Why do African-Americans exclude whites from their culture?' And the second came from a small child who was with his mother. He simply asked, 'Why does it have to be a different question for African-Americans?'"
Cryer wove the questions into a script that eventually became 99. The audience sees videotaped clips of people asking their questions and hearing the answers, interspersed with monologues delivered by Cryer's character. The answers, mixed with humor and candor, are crafted into a fast-moving dialogue.
99 debuted at Hamilton in Minor Theater to a standing-room-only crowd. The production had an immediate effect, spawning countless spontaneous discussions, newspaper editorials and a number of local television reports. "The success of 99 on campus was gratifying, but it also motivated me to bring the production to a larger audience. I envisioned a national and international tour."
Cryer spent the next 18 months reworking the play into a one-person touring show (the original play incorporated his students). While on leave last year, he took 99 to about 60 cities in the U.S. and another dozen overseas, including the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Festival in Scotland and the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. "As an artist, I believe and practice the political as personal, and attempt to use this philosophy as a way of building understanding and inclusion," he said. "One of the goals of this project is to reach as wide of an audience as possible."