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Performer creates a legacy for tragic father

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An "autobiographical pilgrimage" might be the best way to describe Mitzi Sinnott's award-winning one-woman play "Snapshot: A True Story of Love Interrupted by War."

Her performance, in which she portrays a variety of characters, will be televised at 8 p.m. Nov. 26 on West Virginia PBS. Using memoir, song and imagery, "Snapshot" recounts Sinnott's attempt to find and come to terms with the painful legacy of her father, Lorenzo Batts Jr.

Sinnott and her father are both natives of Huntington. Lorenzo was well known as the lead singer of the Explosive Dynamiks, a popular R&B band during the 1960s. He was drafted and sent to Vietnam before her birth and returned a changed man.

Struggling with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and unable to readjust to civilian life, he felt he has no choice but to leave his family. "I can't be the man you need me to be ... You and Mitzi will be better off without me," he wrote to his wife in 1978.

Sinnott did not see her father again until 2004, when she found him in Hawaii, homeless, alone and suffering from schizophrenia. In the play, she steps into the role of her father as a young singer, and then later on reliving the horrors of war.

She also portrays her white mother, Yvonne DeKay, as she tries and fails to reunite with her husband after the war and Sinnott's herself as a young biracial girl longing for a father's love.

"In a very serious story, I've done everything I could to present it in a way that's entertaining that will allow the audience to digest a very intense topic," said Sinnott, who now lives in Flatwoods, Ky.

Sinnott premiered "Snapshot" in 2004 at Brooklyn's BRIC Studio, followed by a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, for which she was nominated for best actress. A reviewer for the stage in London described the play as "A breathtakingly audacious revelation of Sinnott's search to find her father ... Many aspire to this but few achieve it."

She decided to revive "Snapshot" in 2009 as a new generation of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan confront similar challenges.

"It was important to get back up and tell the story -- as I performed it all over the place, it reminded me again there is a need to talk about how our veterans reintegrate when they come back from war."

Her father was one of those who fell through the cracks. He died in Hawaii last year of starvation, "which is another reason I'm compelled to tell the story because his death was equally tragic."

Now, she is working with some producers to turn the tale into a feature film and update it with her struggles in trying to pry loose information that might have helped her father and the way he died.

Her father's grandfather was American Indian, and that gave her an idea.

"After finding my father, I felt he was still struggling with guilt as a warrior, as a soldier."

She asked a tribal elder of the Cherokee nation if there was something Indian warriors might do to help themselves become part of the tribe again after warfare.

"He told me about a ritual of absolution and he helped me write a contemporary ritual for my father. In the play, there is a movie of a live stream, and I kneel down by the stream and do the ritual warriors used to do for seven days when they came back from battle.

"So I sort of proxy my father and perform that ritual of absolution at the end of the play, and that's how the whole play closes."

Sinnott said the play is an homage to many things, including the love affair of a multiracial couple and the legacy of her father's short-circuited life.

"The thing that made me write the play was, looking at how his life had been destroyed didn't seem right or fair. That this man, my father, who many claimed was a great person, people should know if he exists.

"So, at that point, I just decided, as his daughter, I would do as much as I could so that as many people in the world would know that he lived, that his life was not in vain. So 'Snapshot' is my small effort to honor his life."

For more on Sinnott's work, visit Mitzisinnott.com.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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