Blown away

Timothy Berry didn’t know what he had on his hands. 

What he thought he had was a colorful research project: An hour-long music and spoken-word performance piece to support the idea of how black male bodies physically carry the effects of racism. To criminally summarize his thesis: From slavery on, the trauma of the Black experience in the U.S. has physical, neurological effects that range from anxiety to diabetes to shorter life spans. 

The coping mechanism, he posits, has historically been creativity—and music a large part of it. 

So Berry’s 2019 faculty-grant-funded stage project covered Black history through monologues and original music befitting certain time periods, from spirituals to Kendrick Lamar. It’s title: “Overcoming by Word of Our Testimonies: Black Male Wounded Healers.” 

None of which sounds like a stage program that would be devastating. Or exhausting. Or infuriating. Or leave audiences stunned, as it does. 

“It just moves you to tears at times, moves you to anger,” said Bukata Hayes, executive director of the Greater Area Diversity Council, one of its first audiencers. “Most of all, it moves you to kind of understand why things are the way they are.” 

Similarly, members of a University audience of education majors in December 2019 wondered aloud as to why they’d never heard of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, or 20th century lynchings. By this point the piece had already traveled to New Orleans and Wisconsin. At each stop, Berry said, he was told the performance had to travel further. 

 Timothy Berry, creator of Overcoming by Word of Our Testimonies: Black Male Wounded Healers 

“These are not my friends, these are people I don’t know,” Berry laughed. “They’re coming up to me, people from several universities wanting to see what it would take to bring this piece in, people from New York, Chicago, Denver. And then COVID happened.”  

During which George Floyd died at the hands —and knee—of Minneapolis police and the response was televised from around the world. It was as though Berry, in his play, provided the historical backdrop that would make Floyd’s death be seen not as an anomaly, but an inevitability. 

“When George Floyd happened, I thought ‘we cannot stop. We’ve got to figure out a way.’” Berry said. “’Because I’ve had people coming up to me asking and anticipating how we’re going to do the next version.” 

Viewing the piece as always under construction, he modified it to include the death not only of  George Floyd, but Breonna Taylor, the Louisville woman shot by plainclothes police in a raid on her apartment in March, 2020 and Ahmaud Arbery, the Georgia jogger whose shooting death after being chased by men in pickup trucks was filmed by one of them. Berry likened it to a safari hunt. 

“Those guys were in pickup trucks and they had shotguns and he was running,” Berry said.  
“I thought, oh my god, this looks like they’re hunting.”  

The modified work has been filmed for sharing online with its production values in place—Berry’s performance of the music, his nephew Michael Berry doing the riveting monologues and the set design by Josiah Berry, Timothy’s son, providing intense atmosphere—blue and red lights, for instance, combining for a feel of “spectacle and blood.”  

Berry’s varied musical background lends itself to the anchor of the work. He majored in vocal music at Minnesota State Mankato in 1992, performed for years in ensembles ranging from jazz groups to Minnesota opera, and he taught K-12 music for years. He returned to the University for his 2013 doctorate in education.  

At the University, Berry taught in the area of educational leadership from 2013 to 2017, at which point he became Director of The Center for Educator Partnerships and Student Support in the College of Education, which he held until taking the job of Interim Dean for the School of Urban Studies at Metropolitan State University in 2020.  

Creativity has been a key part of his life. And while there have been awards, accolades and compliments for other original works, nothing has had the response resulting in this work. 

“I’ve not had a piece that people are saying ‘This is changing my entire outlook’” he said. “I’m blown away because I didn’t expect that.”