A walk in the woods addresses impact, legacy of Atlanta Child Murders

Mavis (Mia Kristin Smith) and Brandon (Kyrun Walker-Smith) in Found Stages' "Cassie’s Ballad," an immersive theatrical experience about the Atlanta Child Murders that unfolds in West Atlanta Watershed Alliance's woods. (Photos by Nichole Palmetto)

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Mavis (Mia Kristin Smith) and Brandon (Kyrun Walker-Smith) in Found Stages' "Cassie’s Ballad," an immersive theatrical experience about the Atlanta Child Murders that unfolds in West Atlanta Watershed Alliance's woods. (Photos by Nichole Palmetto)

“Cassie’s Ballad” is an immersive theatrical experience inspired by the traumatic events of 1979-81.

Just as learning about history should not be confined to a classroom, theater should not be confined to a curtained stage.

With “Cassie’s Ballad,” an immersive theatrical experience that takes place on a hike through the woods of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance through May 22, Found Stages seeks to engage and educate its audience with an interactive story inspired by the Atlanta Child Murders that targeted African American children 40 years ago.

Playwright Addae Moon constructed “Cassie’s Ballad” as an immersive theatrical ritual after working for years on a traditional play script about the missing and murdered children.

“What I did was take characters from the longer piece and think of it in terms of an immersive piece that would take place outdoors, one that was more of a ritual than a strict play,” Moon said. “One of the challenges I was having with writing the full-length play is that there’s a tendency, especially when you’re dealing with historical traumatic moments in Black American history, to focus on the trauma. That’s not something I want to do.”

The hike takes place over 45 minutes, guided by a 1980s Black teen character named Brandon. Brandon is looking for his friend Cassie and needs the attendees’ help, for Cassie has stopped speaking. Brandon believes that arranging a search party to find and supply Cassie with support and words will help her regain her speech.

“As we started to reshape this piece into something else,” the playwright said, “I wanted to use the specific historical elements of the Atlanta Child Murders as a jumping-off point to talk not just about how tragedy and historical circumstances impact Black communities and Black bodies since we got over here off the slave ships, but also finding ways that we can heal.”

The show is not a period piece. Instead, it uses fantastic elements to play with time.

“Because it is immersive and the audience is a part of it, I think of it as this journey that spirals through time,” Moon said. “There are aspects of it that are set in the 1980s, but it actually brings us up to contemporary situations, contemporary issues of trauma and struggle and transcendence. I have a very difficult time even referring to it as a play, because it really isn’t. Framing it as a ritual gave us a lot of flexibility to play around with elements like time, which you’re more stuck to in a traditional play.”

Moon had written interactive pieces for Found Stages, including the troupe’s Halloween show “Frankenstein’s Funeral.” He also had worked for several years at the Atlanta History Center, creating shows where visitors could interact with historical figures and situations. One piece, “Four Days of Fury,” focused on the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, and audience members would be assigned a racial identity that determined where they could sit and how they were treated during the show.

“When we were doing the work there, one of the things we focused on was how history connects to the present, because most people encounter a historical story and then wonder how it relates to their life. One of the things I wanted to make sure the audience understands in this immersive setting is that these historical moments shape our lives in ways we’re not even aware of.”

When Moon was a child, for instance, he had an aunt who lived in Atlanta that his family visited from Florida every summer. During the Atlanta Child Murders, the visits stopped.

“I didn’t return to Atlanta until I came here for college. I know that event shaped my entire life, even though I wasn’t in the city,” Moon said. “It was always interesting to me how this incident shaped the lives of people who lived here, especially young Black people who are now in their 50s. And how the ongoing incidents of racism, white supremacy and violence against Black bodies continue to shape our lives. It’s so easy to get caught up in the pain and trauma of it.

“So what I wanted to do with [”Cassie’s Ballad”] was to provide people ways to move beyond it. How can we heal ourselves? Not ignore it, not push it away. But how can we learn to heal ourselves in spite of it? It starts with addressing the thing that happened, seeing it and stating it. And then the next step is wondering how we can find balms to heal these wounds.”

Moon’s piece acknowledges this “particular historical pain,” places it in context with current struggles and tries to find a way to empower his community to “find the energy, stamina and purpose to keep going.”

The playwright said Found Stages and the cast and crew of “Cassie’s Ballad” have really stepped up to the challenges of the program.

“The thing that makes me the proudest is that [theater] people are used to specific modalities of performance, and that’s not really the stuff I do,” Moon said. “I have been really moved by how open the actors have been to a piece that’s a little different, that’s more performance art than play. I’ve been shocked and moved by how they’ve latched on to it and how appreciative they are of the process.”

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Brandon (Kyrun Walker-Smith) prepares attendees for the journey through the woods in playwright Addae Moon’s “Cassie’s Ballad.”

Credit: Nichole Palmetto

Brandon (Kyrun Walker-Smith) prepares attendees for the journey through the woods in playwright Addae Moon’s “Cassie’s Ballad.”

Credit: Nichole Palmetto

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Brandon (Kyrun Walker-Smith) prepares attendees for the journey through the woods in playwright Addae Moon’s “Cassie’s Ballad.”

Credit: Nichole Palmetto

Credit: Nichole Palmetto

Actress Mia Kristin Smith plays Mavis, a relative of Cassie’s who encounters and guides Brandon on the trail. Her own sons Kcaj and Kyrun Walker-Smith will alternate playing the role of Brandon, and she said it’s a layered experience working with them on “Cassie’s Ballad.”

On one level, her character Mavis is proud of Brandon for trying to help Cassie, the actress said. On another, Smith is proud of her sons’ work.

“Because it is real family and they’re trying to give it all themselves, I feel that pride also,” she said. “It’s the pride that Mavis has for Brandon discovering himself that I have for my children becoming Brandon.”

Kcaj, 13, and Kyrun, 12, are both athletes who have trained to lead the attendees through the performance hikes at 7 and 8:30 p.m. on alternating nights. The earlier hike is on a shorter trail to accommodate people with mobility issues and others who don’t want an intense walk, whereas the 8:30 hike is a mile and a half round-trip, according to show producers.

Kcaj and Kyrun have watched each other play Brandon in rehearsals and have collaborated to build a consistent character.

“We work together a lot,” Kyrun said. “If one person is working, the other has pretended to be an audience member, taking notes on what the other person is doing. When we switch, we use what we learned about the person who went before us.”

Added Kcaj: “Thanks to the help of our mom, who has a very great eye, she takes both of our advantages and disadvantages and meshes them into one so that we can be the same character, while trying to be fun-loving characters for the audience.”

“Cassie’s Ballad” obviously is not a true-crime spectacle. It’s not graphic or scary. Instead, it’s filled with meditative moments. It’s intended to mend, Moon said.

“I wanted to provide not only a story,” the playwright said, “but also an experience that could be potentially transformative for the audience that’s there.”

THEATER PREVIEW

“Cassie’s Ballad”

7 and 8:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays. $5-$35. West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, 1442 Richland Road SW, Atlanta. foundstages.org.


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