Austin poet/performer talks race, fatherhood and arts in Austin


At the Austin Critics Table Awards a few months ago, poet and performer Zell Miller III was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame for a body of work that has continued to question and critique issues of race and representation in this city and throughout the country. Although Miller was unable to attend the awards ceremony, his longtime stage manager Lindsey Ervi read his speech in absentia, a fiery address that called into question the lack of diversity in the awards’ own representation of the “best” of the arts last year.

For many of the critics present, including myself, Miller’s critique was food for thought. He was correct: There was a distinct lack of representation in who we were choosing to honor. Though this was not intentional, it can’t be overlooked that a group of mostly white critics were praising mostly white artists, in large part because we had not seen or reviewed many of the productions created throughout the year by artists of color.

Miller’s latest production, “Oh Snap! … My Alien Children Are Trying to Kill Me,” plays this weekend at the Ground Floor Theatre, and I recently had the opportunity to meet with the artist and discuss the issues raised in his speech, his past work and his newest piece.

As a native Austinite, Miller has seen his fair share of awards shows, as well as his share of overlooked performances. “When those awards come out and you’re looking at the listing, you see that there are some amazing shows that were left out,” he says. “I know you guys can’t see everything, but I just feel like there’s a certain group — mostly black and brown people — that don’t get represented. So I felt like that was my opportunity to say something.”

Asking difficult questions of his audience is part of what makes Miller’s work so worthy of the Hall of Fame. His highly praised piece from a few years ago, “Hands Up Hoodies Down,” was a timely response to police brutality told from the perspective of a black man who is the father of black children.

“Oh Snap!” returns to some of the questions raised in that previous work but focuses in more tightly on the experience of raising two black children in a country where their lives are in danger every time they leave the house. The performance mixes stories both touching and comedic to explore the highs and lows of black fatherhood and the universally turbulent relationships between parents and children of every race.

As with previous works, Miller says this new piece will speak to both white and black Austinites. “My core audience is largely white,” he says. “I don’t know why that is, what that is, but it’s cool because I always feel like I can give them this message in a safe space. You’re in the theater, and you’re able to absorb it in a different way.”

In “Oh Snap!,” as in the rest of his work, Miller is an artist of the spoken and written word, and he intends to use that artistry to continue interrogating audiences about the issues that truly matter to him. “If I can get people thinking and talking, like what we did with the speech at the awards ceremony, then that’s my job as an artist,” he says.



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