Artwork for the performance by Josh Alford from the Pratt Institute. (Photo courtesy of Ayvaunn Penn)
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A play born from a judge’s words and focusing on racial injustice was performed by TCU theatre for the first time last week.

“For Bo: A Play Inspired by the Murder of Botham Jean by Officer Amber Guyger” is an original work created by TCU Theatre Professor Ayvaunn Penn.

Penn calls the play, which uses illustrations and voice acting instead of a typical stage performance, a “visceral, emotional experience” about racial injustice.

For Bo premiered Thursday April 23 on Theatre TCU’s Vimeo channel, with four additional streams planned between Apr. 29 and May 2. Admission to the virtual performances are free and attendees can register for a link here.

Ashley Park, a senior theatre major at TCU and the production’s co-director, believes that For Bo is important for the current times.

“During the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and social justice issues, it’s very timely. Especially being a student during this time, it will really start those conversations,” she said. “Being at a predominantly white institution, it’s important for these students, in particular, to be exposed to these kinds of things.”

Penn started the project following inspiration in the midst of Amber Guyger’s trial in 2019. She felt “called to action” when Judge Tammy Kemp said “Why are the people locked out? This is the people’s court. Let the people come inside”, and on that night, she wrote the first draft of For Bo.

Guyger, a former police officer, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison after shooting Botham Jean in his apartment in 2018.

Artwork from the performance depicting the court scene done by Murrell Horton from TCU. (Photo courtesy of Ayvaunn Penn)

According to Penn, the intention behind the play is not to be anti-police, but to encourage people to look at Jean’s murder and think about how to prevent it from happening again.

“No matter what color you are, it’s hard to understand what it’s like to lose a brother, to lose a son,” she said. “As a society, it unfortunately happens enough that it becomes hard to get a tangible grasp to understand how it impacts a family.”

That is also the mission of the #ForBoInitiative, which Penn founded to help combat racial injustice through the use of her play.

More than a watch party

The initiative is a way for For Bo to be more than just something people watch. Their goal is to use “performing arts as a catalyst for positive social change by fostering conversations nationwide,” on issues like racial injustice and police violence.

They encourage all types of organizations to use Penn’s play as a way to start the difficult path toward posiitve change.

First, organizations will host a reading of the play. The reading can be done by professionals, students in a classroom or other private groups.

Then, the #ForBoInitiative suggests a discussion should follow, preferably by “an interracial, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary panel of professionals and community leaders who can provide insight and informed perspective,” on topics including racial bias and healing racial divides.

Theatre TCU will be following this model when the show performs again on Thursday. The discussion panel will include intercultural and interdisciplinary professionals, as well as Allison Jean, Botham Jean’s mother, and Alissa Finley, Botham Jean’s sister, to discuss how the loss of their son/brother impacted them.

The initiatives website says that participants are prohibited from charging an admission fee for readings and discussions, and that all roles must be cast accurately by race.

Artwork from the production depicting outside of the courtroom by Amber Bailey from the Fort Worth Young Women’s Leadership Academy. (Photo courtesy of Ayvaunn Penn)

A new approach to performance

Because the play primarily developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the main focus for both Penn and Park was the adaptability of their performance art to accommodate the times.

While many theatre companies have chosen to either record their performances or perform over Zoom, Penn chose to pursue a new, more intimate form of performance art.

The performance premiering Thursday was “brought to life” through designs and and vocal recordings by TCU Theatre.

The department created the designs based on drawings by community members including TCU students, the Fort Worth Young Women’s Leadership Academy and students at Botham Jean’s alma mater Harding University in Arkansas.

These drawings are inspired by courtroom sketches, which ties directly to the moment Penn felt inspired to write the play during the Guyger trial.

Performance clip that takes place right before the character “Bo” interacts with the police officer. (Ayvaunn Penn)

This intimate form of performance is meant to encourage audience members to really focus on the words in a deeper way and think about one’s impact on racial bias, according to Park.

Penn specifically wanted to use a form of art that required collaboration between multiple different groups as a larger statement of the need for community work and healing to respond to tragedies of racial inequality.

The performance is free to watch this weekend, April 29 through May 2, with the community discussion after the performance on Thursday, but Penn encouraged making a donation to the Botham Jean Foundation if one chooses to attend.

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