Quanice Hayes was his name, but no one ever called him that. His grandmother, Donna Hayes, says that to friends and family, the seventeen-year-old boy was known as “Moose.” Moose, among other things, was a basketball player and had NBA aspirations. “He was short but he thought he could do it,” Moose’s grandmother laughs. Moose was fun-loving and outgoing. “Moose loved music,” Hayes says, “and he loved to dance and he loved his little siblings and he would take anyone under his wing as a friend.” On February 9, 2017, Moose was gunned down by Portland police officer Andrew Hearst. “He was seventeen,” recounts Donna Hayes. “My grandson. He was on his knees when the police decided to shoot him.”
That was more than three years ago. Now, Donna Hayes has written a film, Silent Voices, being screened through the community media center Open Signal, wrought out of her grief over her grandson’s death. “At first,” remembers Hayes, “it started out I was just writing because I couldn’t tell anyone everything that was going on in my head.” But there was more to it than that.
The case of Quanice Hayes became a citywide controversy. There were protests and lawsuits. A grand jury, relying on Hearst’s own testimony, which included the admission that he never saw a gun in Hayes’s hand (nor did any of the other officers), saw the shooting as justified, and that was that. Because that’s the way it goes in Oregon, a state where no police officer has “ever been completely fired as a result of use of force on duty,” according to Oregon State Senator Lew Frederick — and almost never convicted of a crime. The police gave one account of what happened and of who Quanice “Moose” Hayes was, and that was and is the official word. And many Oregonians believed the police.
In comments sections under articles about her grandson’s case, Donna Hayes would see often horrific opinions that internet trolls would have about her grandson, from people who weren’t there when he was killed, and had never met the boy. Their judgments were based solely on the accounts of the people who had killed him. This was a situation Hayes sought to rectify: “I wanted to give my grandson his chance to tell his side of the story.”
The writing poured out of her. First on Facebook, then other places. A friend, Michelle Darr, saw the writings and told her that she had the makings of a play. Donna, then, turned to one Kathryn Kendall, known simply as Kendall, and asked her about what Darr had suggested.
It turned out Kendall was the perfect person to ask. They had met at a press conference after Quanice Hayes’s death. “We immediately bonded as grandmothers,” recalls Kendall, “and we became close friends.” Further, Kendall was a theater person: She had studied under the celebrated actor and teacher Uta Hagen. Kendall taught theater for years, first at Smith College, then as a senior Fulbright professor in Lesotho, and then as head of the theater department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Kendall remembers that Donna Hayes “felt she had to step into [Quanice]’s voice and tell the story of what happened from his perspective. And I said, ‘Wonderful! Do it! Right now! That’s a great thing to do. That will help you.’ But it didn’t occur to me that it was theatrical. It was just something she was doing for her grief.” But once the idea was brought to her, a fire was lit. Kendall took it upon herself to help make Hayes’s vision a reality.
And Hayes’ vision started to grow. Her grandson’s death had become her cause, her mission. And her research took her to other people who had been gunned down by the police. Jackie Collins. Merle Hatch. John Elifritz. Kendra James. The list goes on. Hayes talked to friends and families of the victims. “It was enjoyable to listen to the parents,” says Hayes, “because they wanted to talk about their child. They want to talk about their child and know that someone’s listening.” And because of that bond she kept the families in the loop. “When I wrote for the people that I knew, I sent them what I wrote.”
She searched online for more information, articles, blogs, videos. Before long, Hayes had dozens of voices silenced by the police, aching to be heard. And like with her grandson, she sought to speak the words that they might have spoken, reveal their side of the story.
All the writing was valuable, but theatrically unwieldy. Kendall urged Hayes to cut her character list down to eight. Like many writers, Hayes found that process “very, very hard,” she remembers, “because all of these characters had become a part of me. It was as though each one would say to me, ‘Not me! Not me! Erase her!’ It was so hard, so hard to drop characters.” Hayes didn’t quite make it down to eight, but she did make it to nine ,and now she and Kendall could set about the business of putting on a show.
They decided to put on a staged reading and invite The Red Door Project and Portland Playhouse to see it and, they hoped, decide to put on the show. They found spaces to hold auditions. They cast the show in February. Everything was mapped out and all systems go.
And then the world fell apart.
COVID happened. For Hayes and Kendall, “it was devastating,” Kendall said. Nobody was doing work on stage in front of an audience anywhere. Like theater all across the country, the Silent Voices project was shut down. But the world turned around again, and George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. The nation erupted in calls for justice and police accountability. All of a sudden, the immediacy of Hayes’s play became apparent.
Portland Playhouse opened its doors for free to any group doing social justice work. Kendall, who’s on the Playhouse’s mailing list, saw this notice and called Hayes. ‘Donna, let’s do it,’ she remembers saying to Hayes, ‘Let’s do it at Portland Playhouse. Let’s make it a COVID-safe rehearsal and get some video people to document it. Donna was like, ‘Yes, of course!’”
Kendall reached out to Don’t Shoot PDX and got in touch with the lead video producer for that nonprofit, Mike Hull. (Hull has his own documentary about the massacre of inmates at the Attica prison riots, Surrender Peacefully, You Will Not Be Harmed.) She reached out to the community media advocacy advisor for Open Signal, KatMeow Garcia; and to Olivia Ellis, (who goes by Olivia), who is a videographer and editor; Jessica Daugherty, a videographer and editor; and Lloyd Lemmermann, a sound man. All of them, being moved by the George Floyd protests, said, ‘Oh. This is what I can do.’”
At Portland Playhouse, they started rehearsing one actor at a time. “Thyra Hartshorne (production manager at Portland Playhouse), god bless her, showed up and ran the lights for us,” Kendall said. “We all spaced out at Portland Playhouse. We never had a run-through. We never had a complete performance. We never had any idea how long this thing was going to be because we couldn’t do a run-through.” Kendall didn’t know anything about video, so Hull and Olivia took over that department while Kendall focused on the work the actors were doing. COVID, the George Floyd protests, the generosity of a community, and the grief of a grandmother all came together to create what Open Signal calls a “tender, angry, sometimes hilarious play.”
It’s been a long journey to reach this point, and it’s the kind of journey that never gets completed. It might be as long as the search for justice itself. Kendall, a theater person first and foremost, still hopes to see a live production happen somewhere and sometime in Portland. And she hopes, not surprisingly, that she can be a part of it. Hayes has a different, though related, dream. She eats, drinks and sleeps police brutality and the quest for justice. Her Facebook page is peppered with articles and posts and insights about crimes police have committed around the country. And that’s Hayes’s next goal, to travel the nation. She wants to find friends and families of other victims in other cities in other states and tell those victims’ stories, make their silent voices heard, creating a chorus of justice to harmonize with the memory of her slain grandson.
What started out as an expression of a grandmother’s grief has morphed into a work of art, and further, a tool to build a better society. If you want to see Silent Voices go to Open Signal’s website. There’ll also be a public screening at Oaks Park, presented by Rose City Rollers, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, October 20. Tickets can be purchased here for a suggested donation of $30/sliding-scale per vehicle.
“This started off as an article,” remembers Donna Hayes. “And then it became a play. And then because of COVID it turned into a movie. That little bit of writing took a whole lot of different directions.”