Mary von Aue

 “This isn’t a crime scene; this is a conflict.”

Standing out as one of the most powerful plays in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival, Uniform Justice offers diverse perspectives on the relationship between police and community in an urban setting, and serves as a springboard into a new method of community dialogue. Writer and director Chuk Obasi explores an urban Memphis neighborhood buckling to violence, shining light on the complexities that divide a community. The play is a successful overturn of the tropes that plague film and theater when depicting urban communities and their interactions with police, drawing attention to the incongruity of law and justice, and how suspicion has divided and paralyzed communities. After handing a megaphone to viewpoints too often overlooked, Obasi redirects his attention to the audience, turning viewers into contributors to the conversation, and creating a unique theater experience.

There are no villains in Uniform Justice. Unique to plays and films of this subject matter, the script never indulges in giving “evil” a face as we so often see in the immoral criminal or corrupt cop. The faceless enemy is systemic, and assigning that role to a single actor would have missed the point. Obasi instead focuses his lens on the complexities within that overarching structure, following eight members of the community that have the shared goal of bringing peace to their streets, but are too deeply embedded into a tradition of mistrust.

Each miscommunication validates one’s own suspicions, pitting neighbors against one another despite their common goals. Three childhood friends begin to reevaluate their bond when Rob, played by Aundra Goodrum, becomes a cop. Goodrum evokes sympathy from the audience as he is asked to name his own allegiances. His character is empathetic but often ineffective as he attempts to serve a community that, for good reason, can’t trust his badge.

His friends Jay and Flip, played by Donovan Christie and Christopher Brown respectively, share an energy on stage that lightens the grim realities they face. But Jay’s confidence succumbs to hopelessness, as he loses options, outlets, and security in a neighborhood that is crumbling to violence and tone deaf policing. Christie’s ardent portrayal of Jay is a testimony to the limitations placed on young Black men. Despite his college degree, Jay acknowledges that he “don’t mean shit to this city,” and comes into trouble with the law when he seeks protection for himself.

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Meredith Watson gives a chilling performance as a determined mother who becomes a ghost of her former self, while Charlie, played Karen Eilbacher, is equally determined that the path to peace is through order, and plays a cop with commanding resolve. Chuk Obasi’s insistence on presenting each character as they see themselves—with their divergent reactions to events, and their limited options in finding safe spaces—has filled a void in how Black, urban communities are being represented when in conflict with the police.

In the wake of Ferguson, this conversation could not come sooner. While the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to shift the discourse on systemic racism in America, there is still a dearth of Black characters in film, TV, and theater. Black representation is still missing from mainstream theater, and the expectation that the few voices on stage must speak for an entirety is as reductive as it is ever present. Obasi circumvents that expectation in a number of ways. Aware of the limitations of anecdote, he lets his characters speak to their personal obstructions, rather than comment on the larger power structures in motion, giving a more nuanced systemic critique. All eight divergent voices on stage belong to eight members of a Memphis neighborhood. In this setting, police officers are also Black, unlike Obasi’s own experiences in New York City, where police did not live in the neighborhoods they patrolled. This distinction presents a grey area that does not exist in most communities, but is unique to what he saw in Memphis.

“I’d been looking for a platform to explore the grey mass between polarizing points of view,” writes Obasi in the playbill. When writing the piece, Obasi conducted interviews and “insight” conversations with local residents and law enforcement throughout Memphis. The insight approach, which he describes as a study of how the mind operates when facing conflict, is meant to challenge opposing parties to choose curiosity over certainty when in a confrontation. The process, which included conversations with eighteen police officers over a nine-month period, replaces the certainty of past experiences with the curiosity for individual ones. “Past experiences tend to dictate how we respond in the present,” Obasi said to the audience. To construct better relationships between police and community, he is pioneering a style of theater that engages and includes all sides of the conversation. “We need to challenge ourselves to be curious about each other.”

The script owes much of its dialogue to these exchanges in Memphis and serves as the final culmination of the insight approach. By including the dialogue from various community members and law enforcement personnel, Obasi brings some of the most raw dialogue to reach the stage at Fringe. While Rob, surrounded by pressure from fellow cops, family, and friends, asserts that he is “trying to prevent wars,” there are those in the community that see the war as ongoing. Jay’s remarks are the most scathing. “They have you conditioned,” he tells his old friend, whose commitments are under scrutiny. With these perspectives laid bare, the audience pivots from spectators to participants, engaging with the approach as if they had been at Memphis City Hall, hearing about the community’s struggles and suspicions for the first time.

A conversation segment and Q&A between the cast and audience follows every performance. The eight voices on stage are immediately met with an audience willing to relate and even challenge these narratives in real time. While one participant reflected his initial resistance in accepting the cops’ sincerity, he claimed the performance reminded him that they’re human. Another woman shared that she once worked in the DA’s office, and could identify with a cop who clings to the need for security. The question “who is criminalizing us?” was met with divergent answers: We are, They are, Fear is, Privatized Prisons.

Obasi’s vision is to turn all of your expectations on their side, and his technique is thorough. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice echoes through the theater not during a time of triumph, but in the darkest hour, when the audience witnesses a great loss of faith in the system that’s meant to serve. A jolting reminder that victory has not arrived.

As imparted in the play, “justice doesn’t look the same for everyone,” and Chuk Obasi uses the stage to examine that elusiveness in a community that has been denied justice for too long. It would be a stretch to call Uniform Justice optimistic in scope, but more importantly, it is proactive, yielding immediate discourse that is meant to create what the characters cried for in harmony: a new day.

Mary von Aue is Associate Editor for Warscapes. She is a freelance writer based in New York. She holds an MA from Columbia University, where she studied classical Islamic literature and the effects of the water crisis in Palestine, a topic she investigated while working in Deheishe Refugee Camp. Mary has lived in 6 countries and writes about history, policy, and culture. Twitter @von_owie

 

 

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