As ongoing incidents of police brutality and excessive force continue to plague the country, a group of Cleveland playwrights decided to take on an infamous case that shook their city two years ago: The death of Tamir Rice. They interviewed legal experts, activists, law enforcement officers, and citizens to create a collage of original monologues about the incident.
Now, Playwrights Local will produce the world premiere of Objectively/Reasonable: A Community Response to the Shooting of Tamir Rice, 11/22/14 at the Creative Space at Cleveland’s Waterloo Arts, where it runs Aug. 18-Sept. 4. Directed by Terrence Spivey, this documentary play addresses the impact and aftermath of the shooting and expresses unheard voices from the Cudell neighborhood, where the incident occurred.
Playwrights Mike Geither, Tom Hayes, Lisa Langford, Michael Oatman, and David Todd contributed to the project. Todd, who is the artistic director of Playwrights Local, conceived the idea. The play is the theatre’s second full production, as the company officially opened last year.
“We had discussed doing some ensemble pieces as a way to create a sense of community among the playwrights and generate opportunities for playwrights to get their work up,” Todd explains. “Once we put the group together, everybody agreed immediately that this was the best topic for us to address.”
On Nov. 22, 2014, a Cleveland Police Department 911 dispatcher received complaints of someone threatening children with a gun at the Cudell Recreation Center on the city’s west side. Because of his height and build and a hood obscuring his face, it was difficult to tell whether the person was a child or an adult. Additionally, the orange safety tip had been removed from the barrel of the authentic looking pellet gun, so witnesses were uncertain whether it was a real weapon. When the police pulled up to the gazebo where he was standing, Rice reached for the gun in his waistband, and one officer shot him after jumping from the car. The 12-year-old fell to the ground and died shortly after.
The case quickly became controversial, and the problems were exacerbated by the fact that these events transpired in the midst of a tragic series of fatal shootings of African-Americans by police officers. Questions came up about the way the police approached the scene, losing control of their zone car on the wet and muddy grass as they slid toward the gazebo; the lack of medical attention Rice received in the minutes after the shooting until an ambulance arrived; and the judge’s decision not to recommend indictment of the two officers.
Although there were some limited public protests and numerous editorials and articles about the case, the city never exploded into fiery riots the way Baltimore did, for example, after Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. So Playwrights Local felt that a play using voices from the community could help ease the remaining tension, by allowing people to express their thoughts on the shooting.
Todd and Geither spoke with the Rice family’s attorney, Subodh Chandra. Geither then interviewed two faculty members from Cleveland State University, where he is an associate professor in the English department: Ronnie Dunn, an urban studies professor, and Michael Williams, who was director of the black studies program until his recent death.
The last interview Geither and Todd did was with Rice’s mother, Samaria. The two playwrights and director Spivey had met with her earlier to explain that they were not including a Tamir character in the play or even using his image. The purpose of the play was solely to give the community a chance to comment on the case. When she gave her approval, they asked if she would be willing to sit down for an interview. Delighted that someone would be playing her on stage, she agreed. The resulting monologue about her pain and frustration as a mother and with the racism and challenges of the police concludes the play.
“When we spoke with her, we could feel that she really wants justice for what happened,” Geither says. “She was a little upset that the reaction wasn’t stronger in Cleveland, and she wanted rioting or a bigger response, and I can certainly sympathize with that.”
So a couple of the playwrights took to the streets to uncover the community’s response to the indicent.
“All of the people I talked to were native, everyday Clevelanders,” recalls Langford, who is originally from Buffalo, N.Y. “That was a priority for us because people who were directly affected by the case typically don’t discuss their experiences or opinions, which can then fester and create division. So our process was a way for people to talk about what happened.”
Oatman, who is also a journalist, chose to do some on-the-street interviews, as well as reach out to a woman working in the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s office. “It was interesting talking to the law enforcement side and hearing their perspective on the case,” he says. “That definitely made me think about it in a different way.”
When the playwrights finished writing the monologues, they turned them over to Todd and Spivey, who selected 18 for the final production. They also culled snippets from other interviews not chosen as monologues that are incorporated in the production as interstitial comments.
Then Spivey, who recently left Karamu House after more than a decade as artistic director, took the reins, casting seven local veteran adult actors and two children. He chose to take a nonlinear, stylized approach that combines movement and breaks the fourth wall so the actors deliver the monologues directly to audience members.
As a historian of American and black theatre, Spivey intends to keep the staging rooted in radical ‘60s performances calling for social justice that merged the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements that would make Amiri Baraka proud.
“It’s not just about entertaining, educating, and informing,” Spivey says. “It’s also about speaking out for those who suffer in silence, and it’s a call for action.”
Working with multimedia guru Anthony Brown, Spivey developed a video retrospective with a montage of iconic images of abused or murdered African-Americans, from chain gangs to such slain black youth as Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. The video opens the play and provides a historical context.
Spivey’s daughter, Malika, costumed the actors in black and white, including some masks to help the performers play multiple characters. Maya Jones is the assistant director and stage manager for the show, while Margaret Peebles did the lighting design, and Howard Dillard II provided the sound design.
What might audiences expect of this play addressing the contentious police shooting of a 12-year-old boy? “It will probably end up being a Rorschach Test for audience members,” Oatman speculates. “The background and perspective that they bring will serve as the lens through which they view the piece.”
Christopher Johnston is a freelance journalist, playwright and director in Cleveland. His play Selfies at the Clown Motel will premiere at convergence-continuum theatre, Aug. 26-Sept. 17.