In his pioneering fight against Jim Crow laws, the Vietnam War, and all other state-sponsored manifestations of white supremacy, Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed 29 times. On one such occasion, locked in a cell with no mattress in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote one of the most powerful documents of the 20th Century: an open letter that condemned not only virulent racists but also systems of oppression and all those complicit in them.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” he wrote.

Spirit of Grace performs at Motus Theater’s 2020 MLK Jr. Day Performance. Photo by Michael Ensminger

It’s in that spirit—resisting unjust incarceration and calling for true community over complacency—that Boulder’s Motus Theater will stage its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day performances on Monday. This year’s iteration will take place virtually, as an hour-long Zoom variety show of sorts, featuring gospel a capella music from local group Spirit of Grace, spoken word poetry, and readings of autobiographical monologues penned by formerly incarcerated Coloradans.

Juaquin Mobley, who was first handcuffed at age nine and spent much of his life behind bars, will co-host the event. He’s a founding participant in Motus’s JustUs Monologues, a series of testimonies written and delivered by those most impacted by the criminal justice system. Mobley says such performances are an essential step toward restorative justice. “More often than not, our story has been told not even by a second party but by a third party,” he says. “As a result, it loses that oomph, it loses that authenticity. The way we’re doing this, we’re putting you in a situation where you have to sit in it, you have to feel it.”

Michael Dougherty, the Boulder County district attorney, will sit in it and feel it, too—he’ll read a monologue written by Daniel Guillory, another formerly incarcerated Motus member, alongside Jessica Howard, ACLU of Colorado’s racial project coordinator. Kirsten Wilson, Motus’s artistic director, says that she hopes having Dougherty read Guillory’s words aloud will help move officials closer to the people whose lives they impact.

Dominique Christina
Dominique Christina. Photo courtesy of Dominique Christina

In addition to the JustUs testimonies, the MLK Jr. Day performance will feature activist and five-time national spoken word slam winner Dominique Christina, who will perform a new poem. Adapting to a virtual format did not phase Christina, a longtime Motus collaborator. “I’m not reliant upon the oohs, the aahs, the snaps, the affirmations to read with conviction,” she says. “I meant it when I wrote it. I mean it when I’m in the shower. I mean it when I’m alone.”

From 1983 to 2020, Colorado’s prison population more than tripled. And, as of 2018, Black people accounted for 5 percent of state residents, but 18 percent of people in prison. For Wilson and Christina, creating theater that engages with that context requires careful candor. “I’m interested in telling the truth; I’m not interested in tying a pretty bow around a crime scene,” Christina explains. “I’ll be willful and deliberate about telling the truth, and cracking things open, but I’m also going to be willful and deliberate about keeping you safe in that conversation, and making sure you’re not harmed by me, or by the harshness of what I’m saying.”

Kirsten hopes Monday’s show will reach audiences far and wide—and, in doing so, celebrate the resilience of its performers and folks around the country working to uphold and advance King’s legacy. And she knows the work, including solidarity-building efforts with the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and related organizations, will continue after the Zoom ends.

If you go: The performance will stream via Zoom on January 18 from 3–4 p.m.; tickets are free, and available online