by Matthew Falduto
Photos by Bob Goodfellow
The topic of police brutality on African Americans is one of the most important issues today. Newly installed Riverside Artistic Director Sean Lewis wanted to kick off the season with a play about this topic, but as he noted in his curtain speech, he couldn’t find one that he felt was suitable. So he did what artists often do – he wrote it himself. Supported by strong acting from all four actors, the play raises the issues and should spark conversations, but ultimately feels like a work in progress.
The story centers around two characters – Charlie, a white Chicago cop whose father and grandfather also walked the beat, and Marcus, an African American man with a wife and two kids who was assaulted by Charlie ten years ago during an arrest. Charlie’s younger sister, Charlotte, wants to know the truth of the encounter and in a wildly stupid move, brings Marcus to Charlie’s house for ‘closure.’ It doesn’t go well.
There’s a strong attempt in the script to make Charlie (played by Ryan West) likeable, and to tell his side. He was a rookie. He was scared. Marcus didn’t obey his commands. All of that felt like excuses that come from a privileged place of power. And yet never in the play was he forced to face that. It’s as if we’re supposed to accept his excuses even if we don’t condone his actions. And later, when another aspect to the confrontation is revealed, Marcus’s character is undermined, and Charlie is again uncomfortably redeemed.
In fact, the character of Marcus (played by Barrington Vaxter) often comes across as out of control and at times violent, but the perfectly valid reason for this was the trauma he experienced 10 years ago. While this is touched on in conversations with Charlotte (played with earnest liberal optimism by Alyssa Perry), this isn’t really something Charlie is forced to confront in the play and that is a missed opportunity. Varrington, to his credit, provides a powerful performance. He’s always physically in the moment, and his choices are smart and brave.
There are some funny moments of the script. For instance, the conversation between Marcus and Charlotte concerning white liberal guilt. Marcus schools Charlotte whenever she ventures into fakey Facebook territory in her responses to him. Perry does an excellent job portraying a character who desperately want to do the right thing but has no idea what that right thing actually is.
Charlie’s African American girlfriend, Lori, shows up halfway through the play and basically provides an opportunity for Charlie to prove that he is a racist, as he talks about how she’s one of the ‘good’ ones, but Marcus is one of the ‘bad’ ones. Fortunately, Lori (played by Tierra Plowden) comes to see Charlie for who he is. Plowden has a difficult job portraying a character caught between the two worlds. However, she makes smart acting choices to create a strong and heartfelt character.
The climax of the play happens offstage as we listen in on a cellphone call on speaker mode. It was hard to hear what was happening, which I suppose was true to the circumstances, but was also frustrating and took me out of the moment. Of course, as soon as we realized where the character on the phone were calling from, we knew what was going to happen. The ending was frankly over the top and felt unearned. And then Charlie’s final speech felt out of place with everything else that he had said and done up to that point.
Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s set is well done, showing not only a wonderfully detailed interior of the house, but also a back porch area, which is clearly visible through large ‘windows’. Some of the scenes happen out there and that worked really well. In fact, the highlight of the play is the first speech by Marcus, which is played outside the house, a smart directorial decision that suggests the isolation of the character. The moment is heartfelt and illuminating and Varrington is a compelling actor to watch. I wish the rest of the play built on that monologue but instead it focuses on Charlie’s story.
While this script will certainly spark conversations, I don’t know that it moves the conversation forward in a meaningful way. We need to talk about these issues and Riverside is to be commended for contributing to the conversation. And the play is certainly an opportunity to watch four good actors plying their craft. I just wish Riverside had taken time to develop this into a more compelling script.