"I'm not okay," says my friend Keith Wallace when I check in on him. Wallace, with the help of director Deborah Stein, is in the process of re-staging his hit one-man play, The Bitter Game, for the 2017 Without Walls (WoW) Festival.
When he tells me, "I'm not okay," Wallace isn't referring to the punishing schedule he keeps as an in-demand actor and playwright. No, this rising star and recipient of the 2016 Princess Grace Award is white-knuckling his way through each day as he revives, revises and rehearses The Bitter Game, a devastating exploration of state-sanctioned violence and the ongoing fear and trauma that is inflicted daily upon black people across this country. In other words, it is a story that he knows intimately as a black American.
"It was the first opportunity," Keith wrote to me in an email, "where I felt like I could be artistically vulnerable and transparent in a way that is necessary for the kind of art that challenges the status quo and that truly examines the human condition; the things that connect us all."
And this play connects like Muhammad Ali's Rumble in The Jungle knockout punch.
With The Bitter Game, Wallace gives his audience intimate access to the universal story of a young black man coming of age in Philadelphia under the protective eye of his mother, who worries for her child's safety in a world designed for his extermination.
"The issues in the play are deeply urgent to our times," said Stein via email, "and as artists we need to use our platform to tell the stories that need to be told and to start the conversations that need to be had. Live theatre is an ideal mechanism for creating shared spaces of empathy and conversation."
The Bitter Game couldn't be more timely, though it seems inadequate to say this play is timely. Set as it is against the backdrop of the most recent police murders of black people (Terence Crutcher, Keith Scott and 13-year-old Tyre King—for the love of Pete, make this ish stop), the truth is that this production is never not timely. It is, as they say in the opinion-column business, an evergreen: For as long as black men—and women and kids—are being harassed, terrorized and murdered, The Bitter Game is of-the-moment.
"The fact is that this is an American story and, ultimately, the piece brings people together in a visceral way," says Wallace when telling me about the evolution of his work over the last year-and-a-half. "It's been a cathartic experience for me, artistically, but it's traumatic to keep performing it."
If it's traumatic for him, it's traumatic for us, too.
They say art imitates life, and just like life, we play a role and audience members are more than just observers. This is interactive theater in the least intimidating sense of the phrase; nobody is called up or called out. But as in life, we are part of the story whether we sit quietly or wallow in our own guilt or are finally moved to action. In bearing witness to the staged drama, we are forced to shoulder some of the pain, and to reckon with and examine our level of complicity in the real drama that is state-sanctioned violence against black people.
This play, Wallace told me, seems to elicit two major reactions. First, it informs a naïve audience, which includes most white people. In what I'll call the third act, Wallace takes theatergoers into the psyche of a black man as he's being pulled over by police and we live the experience with him. As a white anti-racist activist, I had to admit that I hadn't come close to comprehending (or, if I'm being honest, deeply contemplating) precisely what goes through the mind of—and the primal fear experienced by—a person regularly stopped by police. Wallace brings the terror so vividly, so acutely, that witnesses can't breathe.
Perhaps more importantly is what the playwright calls "radical recognition," or as he put it to me, the "Holy shit! That's me!" moment shared by black (and brown) audience members who see themselves and their world experience reflected in the story.
While the audience is a character, the setting is a character, too: It's nighttime at San Diego's Graffiti Park, an urban setting that's been revitalized by the work of Writerz Blok, an internationally recognized program of the Jacobs Center for Innovation that provides space for urban youth to create art. (Writerz Blok has been commissioned to contribute graffiti for the play).
Ultimately, this is the story that much of America likes to keep at a good distance, if not dismiss and deny altogether. But it's time to push past that discomfort, as Wallace does each night, breaking it down, and offering an unvarnished, raw and immediately accessible experience, throwing open a window through which to view realities of black life.