Famed producer Cooper brings latest play to Lee Hall

Chad Lawson Cooper brings his latest production to Lee Hall on Feb. 18.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Denise Powell assists with setting up an interview for the documentary.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Interviews for Chad Lawson Cooper documentary was filmed in Denise Powell’s living room.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Five years ago when veteran producer Chad Lawson Cooper came to town with his play “Justice on Trial,” he was introduced to Dr. A.D. Brickler.

It didn’t take long for him to find out that Brickler is the great-nephew of freedom fighter Harriet Tubman. Cooper, a Quincy, Fla., native, began connecting the dots and part of that process was to have Brickler and family members visit the Tubman Museum in Macon, Ga.

It was only fitting that they met at the museum. Cooper was filming scenes for the docudrama “Justice on Trial 20/20, including a segment that featured Tubman. The film was inspired by the success of the off-Broadway stage play version of “Justice on Trial,” which was playing at Lee Hall when Cooper met the Brickler’s.

Cooper and the Brickler’s have had a reunion of sorts lately. Brickler’s son A.J. and other family members will be featured in a documentary that is part of Cooper’s newest touring off-Broadway play, “Descendants Speaks,” a title that Cooper said is grammatically correct because he views the “descendants” as a singular group.

Cooper wasn’t just driven by his passion as a writer/producer, A.J., said.

“He is just a dedicated individual. His love of African American history is what carries him through all of this,” Brickler said. “He is just genuinely interested in making African Americans feel like their lives matter.

“Really, if we don’t realize Black lives matter nobody is going to realize it.”

The play will also feature actor Tony Vaughn playing the role of W.E.B. Du Bois. Cooper’s wife, Alicia Robinson Cooper, will portray Tubman.

Another highlight of the evening will be Cooper’s presentation of a Presidential Lifetime Achievement Volunteer Award to historian Althemese Barnes. The honor signed by President Joe Biden is recognition of community service by Barnes, who was executive director of the John G. Riley Museum, which she founded 28 years ago.

The opening performance of “Descendants Speaks” will take place at FAMU’s Lee Hall Auditorium on Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. It will be followed by a short documentary, which was filmed last week. The audience will get an opportunity to asked questions of the Brickler’s and Jeffrey Du Bois Peck, a great-grandson of Du Bois.

“It will be a great conversation in terms of how do they take the torch from their ancestors and keep it going and perhaps even take it to the next level,” Cooper said.

The play is coming to Lee Hall in the middle of Black History Month. Contributions to Black causes by Du Bois and Tubman are usually part of the annual conversation.

Du Bois, perhaps best known for his activism and work with the NAACP, was a sociologist and historian. Du Bois often stated his point of view in The Crisis, a publication owned by the NAACP. 

Tubman’s story about the Underground Railroad is well documented. She was credited with leading more than 300 enslaved individuals to freedom, many of them to Canada. 

Cooper worked in conjunction with Denise Powell during production of the documentary. Powell, who met Cooper in Atlanta while attending an Allen Entrepreneurial Institute event in 2019, turned the living room area of her Griffin Heights home into a mini studio. The work also took the crew to FAMU’s campus.

Some of the faces that will be seen during presentation of the documentary are Shauna Smith, Steve Beasley, Delores Lawson along with the relatives of Tubman and Du Bois.

Powell, who owns DP Global Media, is vested in a high-quality production.

“I’m a Brickler baby,” said Powell. “This is real close to home for me. I was born at Florida A&M hospital in 1963. It was a no-brainer to get involved.”

Cooper brings his Black history message to Tallahassee at a time when the city is celebrating its 200 bicentennial. It seems only right that his father, a well-known OBGYN who died last fall at age 94 is celebrated during the city’s celebration of its history,  said Brickler.

A.D. Brickler endured years of working in areas that were limited to Black physicians only before desegregation.

“We’ve got our government trying to erase our history so we don’t realize what it took for us to be here,” A.J. said. “It took a lot; people had to do what they could to survive.”

He went on to express gratitude to Cooper for focusing on his family ties to Tubman for a public showing.

“We would have never come up with something like that,” Brickler said. “He is the impetus behind that. We hold onto our experiences between Harriet, my dad and my grandfather and my mother. That’s our family but to put it up on display is not something we normally would be interested in doing but Chad has a lot of good spirit behind him.”

That good spirit is what led to the creation of “Justice on Trial.”

Cooper was at a restaurant in Washington D.C., during a stop with his off-Broadway play “Family Mess,” when he received a video of Philando Castile being shot. 

It devastated him.

 “I felt helpless,” Cooper said. “I felt defeated. I felt that every Black person could feel this way.”

He started thinking of what he could do to make Black people feel more hopeful. 

 “I felt this voice that said, ‘take your skills in film and theater and become the activist through the art,’ ” Cooper said.

That led to “Justice on Trial,” the story of a civil right attorney suing the government. He added scenes with Tubman, Emmitt Till, Medger Evers, as witnesses who each represents issues that Blacks face.

The production has become a hit that has played to packed theaters across the country. There have been other successes like Revival (the movie) and Troubled Waters. 

Cooper is now on a path that he didn’t see when he was attending FAMU, where he met his wife. They eventually moved to South Florida, where Cooper began to pastor a church. 

Life began to shift to the stage for Cooper, 52, in 2004 after he informed his church that he had a different calling. Within three years he was on the road with his first off-Broadway play “Church Mess.”  He and his wife, a bona fide gospel singer, put pen to paper to write the follow up “Family Mess.”

By the time they were experiencing the success of both plays, they’d moved from South Florida to Atlanta and eventually to New York, where The Chad Cooper Company is set up on Broadway.

Getting to that point “came at a great sacrifice,” said Cooper who endured a homeless spell in his quest to achieve on stage. 

There is no telling if “Descendants Speaks” will go the way of other plays by Cooper, but the verdict might be out after the Tallahassee show.

“I think it’s going to be very engaging,” said Brickler, “maybe inspiring as well.”


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