American Civic Life

Using Collaborative Theater to Approach Interfaith Conversations in Memphis

By Ariel Warmflash
Memphis rapper-actor Chris Franceschi performing outside of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 2023, the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at that same location.  Photo credit: Andrea Morales

Memphis rapper-actor Chris Franceschi performing outside of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 2023, the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at that same location. Photo credit: Andrea Morales

From its inception in 2015, The In[HEIR]itance Project has worked with communities to build relationships across divides through collaborative theater projects inspired by shared cultural touchstones. These cultural touchstones, often sacred/religious texts, become a lens through which communities can creatively unpack their local histories and personal experiences.

Initially, this work was catalyzed by requests from Jewish communities hoping to deepen their connections to their neighbors. As our work grew around the country, it became clear that limiting ourselves to Jewish communities was limiting our mission of building relationships across silos. We soon learned that by opening up the study of sacred texts to multifaith, multigenerational, and multicultural communities, we could utilize these texts as tools for connection rather than division. Approaching these texts from different traditions holds space for a tapestry of ideas that tells a complete story of communities across the United States.  

Ariel Warmflash facilitating a conversation with the audience following a performance at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Photo credit: Nicole Dancel

We began the “Exodus in America” series in 2017 with that belief and have since created five plays with communities exploring the relationship between the narrative of Exodus and the histories of Harlem, Omaha, Cincinnati, Coastal Virginia, and finally, Memphis. In every city, we grappled with texts from and inspired by Exodus. We connected to modern times to develop an original theater piece by, for, and with the local community. We engage the public in every stage of our process: initial research, aforementioned text studies, introductory theatre skills workshops, open rehearsals where audiences help shape the piece-in-process, and talkbacks with the creative teams following the performances. For us, the conversations never stop.  

In exploring Memphis and Exodus side by side, certain elements connected the two: Memphis gets its name from a city in Egypt, there is a pyramid downtown by the river, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final public speech there before his assassination, in which he quoted Moses and declared he had “seen the Promised Land!” With that source material as our guide, we began our engagement with the people who call Memphis home and assembled their stories into a narrative to build a new play together.  

Actors taking a bow after a performance for a special multigenerational audience at the Halloran Center for Performing Arts & Education. Photo credit: Nicole Dancel

In our work, the process is the product. Our connections with the people and the connections they make with each other along the way shape and mold the content of what we ultimately share. We invited artists, educators, scholars, historians, community leaders, activists, students, seniors, and anyone interested to join the playmaking process. As for our multifaith engagement, we can connect with their congregants in many cities by clicking with faith leaders. In Memphis, the congregants invited us in to facilitate conversations with their neighbors and friends. Through events in both religious and secular spaces, people from different faith backgrounds met each other. They found commonalities through shared values, beliefs, and a love of their hometown.  

We were also able to mine the rich history of white Jewish and Black collaboration in the spirit of fighting for civil rights. We were fortunate that Temple Israel, Beth Sholom Synagogue, and the Memphis JCC were all open and excited about hosting interfaith, intersectional programming for Jews and non-Jews alike. We partnered with Church Health and the Black Clergy Collaborative, who brought their constituents into the art-making process by contributing personal narratives and helping to shape scenes for the final play in public workshops.  

Our project in Memphis culminated in five performances in four days at three different venues, directly responding to the community’s needs. After the murder of Tyre Nichols in January, Limit Breaker Church, which sits at the intersection where he was initially pulled over, requested uplifting cultural programming for their community, and one of our community liaisons was able to bring this request to us. We were honored to hold two performances in the church’s sanctuary and offer arts in a neighborhood called a “cultural desert.” In that space, on the first night of our performance, this series of lines echoed eerily within the sanctuary walls, asking questions that the play would continue to grapple with:   

Can Memphis be at peace and hold fear at the same time?   

Beloved community sharing news columns with crime  

Artists flee Memphis for the promise of some bands  

But for the rest of us, can this be the Promised Land?  


We continued exploring these questions over the next two performances, which took place at the Orpheum Theater’s Halloran Center for the Arts in downtown Memphis, including an exceptional intergenerational performance with 50 high school students (in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves) and 50 senior citizens (Black non-Jews and white Jews, all part of Creative Aging of the Mid-South). Following the matinee, they participated in a post-show conversation that dug deeper into the ideas that arose from the show, specifically the struggles of Memphians who both want to escape their city and see it change to become the Promised Land. Sitting together at tables, seniors and students shared their ideas and what they could learn from each other’s experiences, and in front of the whole group, one student shared,  

“Instead of running away to other places to try and escape the problem, we should stay here and heal our community. The younger generation should speak up about what we have issues with and how we’re hurting because we know the problems, but we don’t know the resources and don’t have the guidance. That’s what the older generation can give us.” 

Their responses to the work and connections they were able to make across generations was a decisive moment for everyone involved.   

Our final performance occurred at the Smithsonian’s National Civil Rights Museum on the 55th commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination, with the outdoor stage set just below the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the shadow of where an American prophet was murdered, we heard his voice echoing from the speakers, “And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” It is our belief that coming together, moving out of our silos and into the brave space of creative collaboration is how we all will get to our own Promised Lands. 

Ariel Warmflash (she/her) is a Queer Jewish artist-activist working at the intersection of her most avid passions; storytelling, community-building, and justice work. Currently she serves as the Co-Founder and Director of Community Impact with The In[HEIR]itance Project. She has lived and worked as an artist and educator in New York City and Washington, D.C. as well as traveled internationally to work with artists in Rwanda, South Africa, Croatia and most recently in India as an Arts Envoy with the U.S. State Department. She’s been identified as an Emerging Interfaith Leader with Interfaith America, a 2019 Avodah Justice Fellow, and holds a master’s degree in Applied Theatre from The City University of New York School of Professional Studies. She currently lives in Philadelphia with her fiancé and beloved dog.