“We are twins in spirit,” says Crystal C. Mercer. She’s perched on a sunken couch in her temporary place blocks away from the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, and yet her posture is straight, effortlessly balanced with her head held high, as she speaks about the father she calls her soul mate. Often, her crisscrossed hands resting in her lap expose the “From Dad” inked on the inside of her wrist in the style of his tiny script, borrowed from a framed event program he gifted to her years ago after speaking at the University of Arkansas about school desegregation. In 1949, after all, Christopher C. Mercer Jr. became the third black student to integrate UA’s law school and had plenty to say. “Somebody who wants a book so bad that they’ll be called a nigger every day, that they’ll live miles away from the school and walk to school and have to leave campus by sundown every day so they can get a law degree?” Crystal says. “That is gangsta. My dad is certified gangsta.”
When looking around this memento-filled room, it’s hard to miss another keepsake: a framed ticket to a 2010 New York showing of One Ninth, the one-woman production in which Crystal starred as Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School (Crystal’s alma mater) in 1957 under the mentorship of Daisy L. Gatson Bates. During the Central High crisis, Christopher—who, 10 years later, would become the first black person to be named deputy prosecuting attorney in a Southern state—held the title of field secretary for the local NAACP chapter, advised Bates and the Little Rock Nine, and even provided rides to school for several of the members.
Even after One Ninth’s final performance, and even after Crystal returned home from a drama-teaching stint in Maryland a couple of years later, the sentiment that drove her to star in the show lingered. That same spirit—the desire to preserve a legacy through the stage—led Crystal to found Columbus Creative Arts + Activism in 2012, Christopher’s 10th and final year of living with cancer. Since then, the consulting service—whose title borrows from Christopher’s middle name—has established programming that blends Crystal’s artistic background with her father’s humanitarian spirit and civil-rights efforts.
One of the first larger-scale manifestations of this fusion is the first-ever African Folklore Film Festival (AF3)—born out of a partnership with Columbus Creative and the Film Society of Little Rock—a celebration of rituals, dance, kinship and magic set for Feb. 17 at The Studio Theatre in Little Rock. And to get the Attorney Christopher C. Mercer Jr. Legacy Foundation off the ground, Crystal launched The Blax: Motion Picture Screening + Players Ball, a showing of blaxploitation films set for this spring, to financially support the foundation’s filing for 501(c)(3) status. Her business also forged a partnership with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre—where she got her start stitching in the wardrobe department in 2006 and eventually graced its stage—to present the C.C. Playwright Festival, a workshop for five selected one-act plays, sometime this August. It’s the least she could do for the father who shaped her ambitions.
“He’s in the ground now,” she says, “and he worked all his life for something to happen that hasn’t quite manifested in the way he envisioned it. That’s why you leave the work with your seeds, the people that you invest in, the people that you till and develop and grow: your children.”
When did you realize activism was the driving force behind your artistic expression?
It was probably right from the beginning because I found that voice at Central High School, which was the battleground for school integration. My father, he played an active role in the crisis here. He was an advisor to the Nine and their families and Daisy Bates, and it’s in my blood to care about these things. I don’t know how my parents did it, but I can recall just being [at museums], and my dad used to say, If you stand in a place where something [happened], you’ll never forget it. Myself, my brother, we always cared about that, and we saw our dad fighting for people, even when they couldn’t pay him as an attorney. He would still represent them because he felt like people needed a voice, so he would be their representation. So I just knew, If I’m a storyteller, and I have a voice, and I found it here, then social justice stories are the stories I had to tell.
What inspired you to later produce your own work?
I started [college] at the University of Central Arkansas. It was one of those things where I was always fighting against the racism of it all because sometimes the university education is very Eurocentric. It’s very white, blue-eyed, thin, in terms of who gets the lead. I had a professor—he still teaches there; he was a visiting professor my first year of school—and we were doing scenes from Proof. I still haven’t watched the movie because of this trauma I experienced in college. But we were doing scenes from Proof, and each girl was playing the lead: the daughter of this man who they thought was crazy, but really, he was this brilliant mathematician. And this professor was like, That was wonderful. That’s probably the best scene I’ve seen in this class. But the truth is, because you’re black, you’re never going to be cast in that role.
Of course, when the movie came out, Gwyneth Paltrow was cast as the lead, [and] it reinforced what he said. That is the truth about the theater world. If it’s not a black show, it’s hard to be cast in a role unless they just need you, unless you know somebody, unless you’re that good and nobody else came out, and they can use you. So then that also becomes part of, OK, well, if I’m not going to be cast in your show, then I need to start doing my own shit because how else am I going to get a part if you think I’m brilliant, if you think I’m the best, and you wouldn’t cast me because I’m black?
And then I boycotted the theater department. I didn’t take any theater classes. I didn’t go to any theater functions. I didn’t participate in any of those things because that semester, this professor was hired to be in the department. And I’m like, If this is the person responsible for my education for the next three years, I’m not going to live that life. It was a disadvantage for me even though I was making a point—and for my soul, it felt better—but for my college career, I was like, I need to get out of school. What the hell am I going to do? So I left UCA.
What helped you realize the power of your reach?
[In 2012], I wrote this play called The Auction Block. It derived from a poem that I wrote about Harriet Tubman that’s 11 pages … because black folks weren’t folks—they were three-fifths of a person. They were sold among the cattle, any type of livestock, corn, cotton, millet, whatever you were selling. They were on the auction block. And I just wanted to pay respect to my ancestors … and when I did this play, I shut down a part of Park Street right by the [Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site]. The national Underground Railroad association was having their conference in Little Rock. And so we did an exclusive viewing for them. I hung people from trees—it was a lot going on, in the context of history. It just felt good. It feels good to talk about black people. It feels good to let people know what happened, how we feel, how we survive. I’m not hanging from a tree right now; some things metaphorically feel like that. I have a power now that most women just a generation ago in my family didn’t have.
How have the submissions for AF3 fit into your vision of what the event should showcase?
I’ve had [submissions] already from Pakistan, India, South Carolina—there are a couple of other places because “African” is relative. I feel like Tre from Boyz n the Hood: “Everybody from Africa—all of y’all.” I want the leads [in the films] to be people of color, strong leads and not stereotypical, but about the human story, the human spirit. But I definitely want to tell the Crayola story of the world. I want every color in the box to be represented. There are a couple of films that I’ve seen about war; these have been particularly in [the region of Pakistan]. There have been some films about kinship, like that magic, that bond between a relative, particularly elders. That’s been something interesting. And magic is relative. We’re all magic. We cast spells every day. We say things that we want to speak into existence. It’s not necessarily like hocus-pocus, but some type of mysticism that can define that spark and suspension of disbelief. Can I capture your attention? Can I hold you in this place? That’s really more of what I’m looking for. That mystic thing.
I know some more juicy things are coming. If I had my way, there would be a djembe in every film or head wraps, some yams or giant squash, or something very central to the continent of Africa. I’m just fascinated with her beauty. And what people see as poor—it’s rich.
What other programs fall under the umbrella of Columbus Creative Arts + Activism?
My favorite, favorite, favorite of all time is “Columbus Creative Presents: An Evening With.” It’s just a platform for artists in different types of art forms. I have six of those under my belt, with the likes of Bijoux, who’s a phenomenal singer; [musician] Joshua Asante of Amasa Hines; [poet] A.p.o.l.l.o.; [jazz trumpeter] Rodney Block, who is everywhere; [opera singer] Nisheedah Golden, who is a good friend of mine; [and myself]. I had my furniture arranged auditorium style, proscenium style, so the furniture was set up in rows in the living room. And then the dining room area was the stage. I had mics; I had amps. I mean it was a show in my house. Candles, red light bulbs—I mean, just everything. And it would be the most phenomenal two-hour experience ever.
I definitely want to find a small venue to keep it going. We have talent in this city that has international appeal: Rodney Block’s been to Brazil, Amsterdam. Joshua’s been all over the United States. Nisheedah did an opera in Shanghai, China, for two months. I’ve performed in Canterbury, [England]. We have experience. This is just where we’re from or where we call home.
What was the process like for securing a partnership for the C.C. Playwright Festival? What do you envision for the festival?
I just wanted a festival that could speak to the legacy of my father because I’m here in Little Rock. So I reached out to Bob Hupp, who’s the producing artistic director at the Arkansas Rep. We have a relationship from back in 2006. I explained to Bob [that] I tried to host this festival [before]. It fell apart. I explained to him: I need a village, and The Rep has been so much of that experience for me. And Bob was so excited about the concept of honoring my father, these short plays, the company of actors that can be in all the plays. And he was like, You were probably thinking about this second stage over here—because they have rehearsal space on the second floor. He’s like, I got something better. You know we built the annex across the street. You wanna see it?
He gave me a tour of the space. It just blew my mind because it’s such a beautiful space. And I feel like this is what happens when you pay your dues: You get your degree; you work; you do some shows. And then you can step in a room with Bob Hupp and be like, I want to partner with you—and he says, Yes. I think it’s just very fitting because that was also a place that pulled me out of my funk after my father passed away when I worked on Treasure Island. It’s fitting in a lot of ways.
I definitely want the playwrights to be a part of the process. They can workshop their work, we coil it down, we get it to a format that is fluid, that is poignant. What are you trying to say? What is your objective? Once the plays are selected and the company of actors is chosen, they learn these plays—and they’re short plays, so they can play many roles. It’s a tight-knit, intimate community. So I don’t need 50 people to be in five plays, I need about seven to 10 people that can play all of these parts.
What is holding Little Rock back? Why pour this passion into Little Rock?
Well, racism is keeping a lot of cities from becoming their full greatness. It’s just the truth, and our racism is not belligerent, in your face. I think it is a lack of understanding because people don’t want to talk about things that happened in the past. I, however, want to talk about everything that happened in the past because I feel like I can’t go forward until some of these things are resolved or at least understood. So our major thing: Nobody wanted to talk about Central until years after it happened. The 30th anniversary was a disaster; 40 years later was better; 50 years later was a little better, but people still are like, Why are we talking about the Little Rock Nine? Because you don’t know the Little Rock Nine. You don’t know what their parents had endured. You don’t know what their siblings struggled through. You don’t know what people in the community sacrificed and lost. I want to talk about Ninth Street.
There’s so much potential here. There’s so much greatness here. There’s so many beautiful places here. That’s what’s holding us back: not talking about [Interstate] 630. I mean, [west Little Rock is] totally different from the areas that are south of 630, and not that they’re lacking, it’s just like, What can we do to build a more cohesive Little Rock? Well, west Little Rock can be posh, and you can shop at the Promenade, and you can go to the Imax. Where downtown can be hip; you can have lunch on the river; you can go see live music. You know where these places are but that you’re not afraid to go there. Because people have this sense of domain when this belongs to everybody the way my dad belonged to everybody. The way I see Little Rock, Little Rock belongs to everybody.