Two years ago the August Wilson Red Door Project started its run of Hands Up, and it made the rest of Portland theater seem damn near frivolous. It was bare-bones theater, as fundamental as it gets. Set, pictures of victims of police shootings strung along the back wall – and maybe a chair. Lights up, lights down. Costumes, everyday clothes. Sound, at a minimum. An actor walks to the middle of the stage and tells the truth. That was it. No flash, no dazzle, no spectacle. Not even illusion. Hands Up was as direct and resonant an experience as an audience was likely to encounter. In a starkly secular society, Hands Up’s frank illumination of a national conversation felt like church for people who don’t go to church and the news for people who don’t watch the news. Real life was put on stage and there wasn’t a metaphor or a symbol in sight. These were burning headlines given living, breathing life.
A collection of seven monologues by seven different playwrights performed by seven different actors, Hands Up explored the fears and anxieties of the Black community around racial profiling and police violence against African-Americans. In the two years since, Hands Up has been seen by more than six thousand Oregonians and had some 60 performances in various sites around the state. But the numbers don’t tell the entire Hands Up story. More than a play, it was an event, a town hall meeting, a public testimonial, and an opportunity to bear witness.
This weekend the Red Door Project follows up the eminently powerful Hands Up with an original piece of its own devising, Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue. Cop Out follows the formula of Hands Up. It’s a collection of monologues built around the stories of real people – in this case, cops. Kevin Jones, artistic director of the Red Door Project and director of Cop Out (Damaris Webb and Phil Johnson are co-directors), insists that the piece is not a rebuttal to Hands Up or a “defense” of cops. What Cop Out is, he says, is an “opportunity for healing”: “We felt that we had polarized on one side, that being the experience of the African-American. We felt that there was an important part of the story that needed to be told. The idea being that many in the public saw the police as a monolithic entity comprised of equal parts power. I thought it was time to recognize that these were human beings. And by telling their stories we could help humanize them.”
Shepsu Aakhu, dramaturg and one of the writers for Cop Out, concurs on the Red Door promotional video: “We wanted to give an opportunity to try and balance that equation so that we can create dialogue.”
This is the ultimate goal of Cop Out. Dialogue. With a topic as explosive and polarizing as police violence against civilians, the question isn’t so much how do you find a middle ground, but how do you even begin a conversation? Whatever you think about the police, you can’t solve the problem without them. And the public and the police have dramatically different ideas about what the problem even is.
If you go to the Red Door website, you can take a mini-questionnaire that underlines the stark differences in perception between populations on one side of the “thin blue line” and the other. 60 percent of the public see the deaths of African-Americans “during encounters with police” as the “signs of a broader problem.” Only 31 percent of police officers would agree, with the vast majority of the other police officers seeing it as a series of isolated incidents. Again, you can agree or not agree, but you can’t change the cops’ perception of the situation.
The flip side is that the same questionnaire reveals that 83 percent of the public believe that they understand the risks and challenges that the police face. 86 percent of police think we’re mistaken about that. “Before we can start a conversation about the issues, we can do more to understand each other,” Jones says. This is where Cop Out comes in.
The idea, naturally enough, came during Hands Up.
“After doing sixty shows and facilitating talkbacks,” explains Jones, “and trying to be very deliberate and intentional with the facilitation of the talkbacks, we heard not just from people in the black community and people from the white community but also the police. Cops started coming and one particular police officer came to me after the show and he said, ‘I would like for the captain of the training division to see this. Would you be willing to meet with him?’ I said sure, I’ll meet with him, and we sat down with him.
The captain in question, Bob Day, was resistant at first. Upon their first meeting, Jones recalls the captain greeting him with the declaration, “I gotta tell ya something, if you’re going to come in here and tell me how racist the police department is you can just turn around and walk out right now.” “And I said, ‘Well, actually that’s not what I want to talk to you about. I’d actually like to know more about your experience, your story.’ He turned three or four different shades of red. He became a different person. He said, ‘Wow. You could do that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I could do that and I would like to do that.’ He said, ‘That would be amazing’.”
This was the first step on the journey to Cop Out. Jones invited the captain and his officers to Hands Up. Initially, the police were defensive. “They said, ‘If they want us to hear their story, how about they come and spend a day with us and we take them through a training day’,” recalls Jones, “Six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock at night, they walk us through their experience, we go through different scenarios, we shoot a gun, handcuffs, tasers, we stop people, we answer questions and at the end of that we have a big conversation, which was a hard, hard conversation. All of the actors from Hands Up were there, some of the crew. We had about 22 police officers. We tried to have a conversation about the shit, the crap that we’re dealing with. It was hard. But at the end of it, what Bob (Day) said was, ‘I gotta tell you something. I’ve never heard cops talk the way they talked in that room in thirty years. They were telling you the truth. They were being much more honest than I’ve ever heard them. They were speaking not on behalf of the police but speaking on behalf of themselves. They were willing to let you see their anger, which cops don’t like to do. Let’s do this again.” I said “Okay, but let’s do Hands Up first.” So, we did a Hands Up, they saw it, we had a talkback afterwards, that was hard too but I noticed they were starting to hang out longer and to talk to me and invite me for coffee, just sharing their own personal experiences and starting to sound more like human beings that had a huge, huge investment in fixing this problem. That was a thing that I didn’t know. I did not realize how desperate these men and women are to solve this problem.”
They may or may not. Some of what Jones relates about those conversations is harrowing. He remembers trying to talk about the dangers and inequities of racial profiling and some cops having none of it. ‘You wanna fix that?’ Jones recalls an officer saying, “Do your homework. Go back to your communities and stop breaking the law. Stop leaving your kids with one parent or no parents. Get into some good schools or education or make your kids learn how to talk to the cops when they get pulled over.”
Now, one might argue that knowing how to talk to cops didn’t save Philando Castile and having a good education didn’t help Sandra Bland and you’d be right. And you’d be arguing. How do you open a dialogue that works to solve the problem? Because Jones remembers another conversation in which an officer argued that police couldn’t afford to be worried about legal ramifications for their actions, that that moment of concern could be the difference between life and death – and another officer told him, “You should quit. Because you’re not going to be a good cop.If you’re saying that concern causes you to question or doubt yourself when you have to make a life-or-death decision, you should quit. Because that’s what the job is about.”
Jones tells another story about a biracial police officer whose father had made him everything he was – but would have nothing to do with him as long as he was a police officer. That life, that experience is going to shape, one way or another, how that police officer deals with the world.
And this is what Cop Out deals with most directly. What are the forces, the stresses, the trials that affect the police, that alter their decision-making, that influence the actions that they take? Who are they?
Jones gathered writers from around the country and linked them with real-life police officers in order to get their real stories and make the stories theatrically viable. It’s a potentially dangerous way to address a national crisis. It’s deeply volatile subject matter. But who’s to say? Maybe dangerous times call for dangerous solutions, solutions that ask us to move past our prejudices and preconceptions. As a black man who has had his own fair share of uncomfortable run-ins with the police and racial profiling, Jones is well aware that there are people who don’t think Red Door should be doing Cop Out at all. But for right now, this is the idea that he has and certainly, nothing else up to now has worked. The idea is to let the police tell their own story. Maybe both sides can be motivated to let their guard down and rapprochement between the cops and the community they serve can happen and a solution can be found. “I would like people to come and wrestle with their beliefs,” says Jones. “I’d like for us to create a new way of engaging with what we don’t agree with or don’t understand. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Cop Out plays Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Nov. 30-Dec. 2, at Self Enhancement Inc., 3920 N. Kerby Ave., Portland. Ticket and schedule information here.