Every day, in St. Louis or elsewhere, a black person shudders in fear after seeing a police officer approaching. Every day, a cop makes a lightning-quick decision that could mean life or death.
A national theater project that includes the exploration of relationships between police and African-Americans debuts Saturday night in St. Louis. The production, “Every 28 Hours” also examines many other themes through a racial lens, including community, protests and mothers. Some of the plays may be difficult to watch, according to Joan Lipkin of That Uppity Theatre Company, who directs 10 plays related to law enforcement.
Lipkin said the collection of works should be viewed as a whole.
“It’s like a kaleidoscope,” Lipkin said. “It’s a cumulative [experience] and you get a much richer and deeper experience of what … racial injustice looks like in America today.”
‘Not that funny’
The theater project hits audiences with the rapid-fire bursts of 71 one-minute pieces. Its title, “Every 28 Hours,” refers to a widely quoted but disputed statistic about how often police kill an African-American person.
The effort began last year in St. Louis, and was inspired by the turbulent aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014. Playwrights include nine St. Louisans and dozens of others from across the country including Lisa Loomer, Migdalia Cruz and Idris Goodwin. St. Louis' Black Rep, Mustard Seed Theatre, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Show Me Arts Academy and Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble are all part of the collaboration.
The point of view switches back and forth. In a piece by nationally known playwright Neil LaBute, a white cop struggles to distinguish a gun from a toy or a comb.
That play may be difficult for some to watch, Lipkin said. But another play raised the eyebrows of Vincent Flewellen, an adjunct professor of social work at Washington University, who is black. It features an African-American man as a dog on a leash, led by a white woman.
The woman doesn’t understand why he’s afraid of the police, and asks a doctor to help. The doctor takes the collar and leash off the man’s neck and puts it around the owner’s, demonstrating the shift of power. It comes off as humorous.
“I understand the intent behind that particular piece, however, it’s just not that funny to me,” Flewellen said.
Flewellen, who sat in on one of the rehearsals, thinks highly of what he knows of the project — but not the play with the dog, which is written by an African-American playwright. Flewellen called it “re-traumatizing” to black people like himself.
“This woman carrying this leash around the neck of a black man, takes me to lynching, takes me to times of slavery,” Flewellen said.
Flewellen said the depiction struck him as especially problematic after seeing the new movie “Birth of a Nation” about Nat Turner, an enslaved African who led a rebellion. He found one scene in the film especially resonant.
“There’s this white girl skipping out of the mansion, really happily, and she has this rope and at the end of the rope is this black slave girl, who is also skipping,” Flewellen said. “Seeing both of those pieces within eight hours just took me somewhere that was not a good place.”
Flewellen said that particular “28 Hours” play should come with a kind of warning, letting audiences know it might be painful and that it should be discussed.
“I think it’s as simple as, ‘What you’re going to see is thought of to potentially provoke humor, but it may not,’” Flewellen said. “Watch, and then have a dialog, after.”
‘Don’t want a CAM situation’
Flewellen’s suggestion about a warning evokes the recent controversy at St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum over a solo display of white artist Kelley Walker. One piece is an image of a female rapper on a men’s magazine, smeared with toothpaste. Another is a Birmingham civil rights photo, obscured by splashes of milk.
“It was totally disrespectful,” Flewellen said. “If someone, somehow , showed disrespect to the lives of Holocaust survivors or those whose lives were lost in the Holocaust, we wouldn’t be allowed to do that.”
Some called for a boycott of the museum’s exhibition; others wanted it removed. The Contemporary decided to post a warning and put up a wall around the four pieces in question.
Lipkin, who is white, said she’s aware that it’s an especially sensitive time for the arts in St. Louis. She said she cares about Flewellen’s, and any others’, concerns. But she won’t insert a warning in front of the dog play or any other piece.
“For us to, in a sense, apologize before individual pieces, I think is to set up unfortunate precedent,” she said.
Presenters will let the audience know that some of the material may be difficult.
Lipkin pointed out she didn’t choose any of the plays; they were assigned by the project’s producer from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“I don’t want a CAM situation here," Lipkin said, [or to give the impression] "that I’m being insensitive to the community because I didn’t curate this collection.”
Actor Noble Montgomery, who is black, has a different opinion than Flewellen about the play with the dog character. Montgomery is not in that piece but he's cast in several others. He said he initially found the piece unsettling and confusing.
“For any black person it would be jarring to see another black person on a leash,” Montgomery said. “But being in the show and doing the work, I get now that it’s about what if the tables were turned.”
Lipkin spends a lot of time thinking about the plays she’s directing and their larger implications.
“After rehearsal," she said, "I have to sort of sit with myself and say, ‘How am I complicit with a system that behaves like this? But also, going forward, how can we address this?’”
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL