All Classical Radio James Depreist

Talking a blue streak

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“Ain’t no reason to lie, just me and you right now,” says a 22-year-old black man, standing center stage in only underwear.

His near-naked body slowly disappears as he pulls on black clothing and snaps in and buckles up layers of heavy riot gear. This black man is a police officer. This police officer is confiding something in the audience. Beneath all the modern paramilitary armor, he admits he’s still afraid.

So begins Cop Out: Beyond Black, White & Blue, presented by the August Wilson Red Door Project.

Cop Out is a series of monologues written for and with police officers. It is a companion piece to Hands Up, a piece written by and for African Americans dealing with police profiling.

Cop Out delves into the hidden realities of those men and women whose job it is to exist in the liminal space between order and chaos — realities that involve a tremendous amount of unexpressed trauma and fear.

Julana Torres takes the public to task for its irresponsibility in one of the complex, powerful monologues of “Cop Out.” Photo: Kathleen Kelly

Each monologue in Cop Out, directed by Red Door co-founder Kevin Jones, explores the never-ending nuance and complexity of each officer’s experience.

“So I Was Driving Along,” by Andrea Stolowitz, stands out as an especially challenging piece. Victoria Alvarez Chacon plays an off-duty black police officer who takes a wrong exit and gets lost in white suburbia. She is soon pulled over, with her daughter asleep in the back of the car. Tension rises as we hear the audible approach of black boots on concrete and the tapping of a gloved hand on her window. An aggressive light flashes on Chacon, and the first thing she sees, with “telescopic vision”, is the police officer’s hand resting on his gun.

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“I’m starting to freak out. I’m a cop, and I’m freaking out. Why is his hand on his gun?,” she asks, as her heartbeat sounds through the speakers.

Chacon’s fear for both her life and her daughter’s is hard to watch. Especially when she tells the policeman who has pulled her over that she, too, is a cop, and he replies that if he finds out she’s lying he’ll “beat the black off of her.” Even more heartbreaking is her confusion as she tries to make sense of what has happened to her.

“For the past week, I’ve been trying to figure it out. I got freaked, that was it. I was tired. I had my daughter in the car. I mean, nothing really happened….right?” she asks, still bewildered as lights fade down on her.

Cop Out doesn’t shy away from any particular perspective. Another powerful, challenging monologue is “Full Stop,” by the Red Door’s own Bonnie Ratner, presenting a police officer frustrated by accusations of implicit bias.

“Do you think I want to lose my home, my family, just to stop you ‘because you’re black?’ Do you have any idea how much I don’t want to stop you because you’re black?” Christopher Hirsh says, pacing in frustration.

Hirsh gives an impressive performance as a police officer trying to balance defensiveness and accountability. At one point he screams, “I’m open! I’m learning!”

Minutes later, with tears in his eyes, he repeats the phrase as a somber whisper. Beneath the defensive screams and the whisper is a desire to be understood, to understand, and somehow move forward.

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Cop Out argues that engaging in dialogue is a civic responsibility.

“The PSA,” by prolific playwright and dramaturg Shepsu Aakhu (who also contributed “Locked and Loaded,” the opening monologue dressed in riot gear), is a plea for the audience to assume some responsibility. Julana Torres explains, “I get calls all the time about things I am not trained or prepared to manage for you. You don’t like the skin color of the person walking down the block? When you bring me and my gun in to play enforcer for your insecurities, every time you do that you’re introducing a gun into the situation.”

Lights have come up on the audience, and everyone is implicated.

“I not only have to manage my concerns, my biases, and yes, my bigotry, but now, I’m gonna manage yours too?” Torres says.

“The PSA” encourages the audience to engage in dialogue with each other, especially the houseless, before calling the police. It encourages us to talk to each other about resources and assistance. This kind of dialogue is uncomfortable. But as Torres says, to an enormous round of applause, “You don’t have a constitutional right to be comfortable.”

“Badge Number,” by Ben Watkins, is a powerful piece that critiques the public’s uninformed unilateral judgment. Joseph Perez Betrot plays a Latino police officer who, at the advice of his pastor, befriends a gang-affiliated black man on the streets. This young black man’s name is Cephas. He is a father of three and a semi-faithful boyfriend. He is a decorated veteran who saw active duty in Afghanistan and who suffers from PTSD.  Even though Cephas is a Blood, his favorite color is blue.

“There is a lot of power in getting to know someone, right?” asks Betrot of the audience, “Right. But you? You just want to know my badge number.”

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Betrot’s character has to respond to a 911 call from Cephas’s mother. Cephas has ransacked their home in the midst of a violent trauma flashback and may have access to a pistol. After repeatedly asking Cephas if he has a weapon, and receiving no response, Betrot sees something in Cephas’ hand. Cephas turns quickly toward Betrot.

“I’m not thinking it’s him or me. I’m thinking it’s him or my wife. It’s him or my daughter in sixth grade. I’m not thinking. I’m just shooting. Six times.” Betrot winces in horror with each bullet he fires into Cephas. Cephas in fact did not have a weapon.

He was holding his cell phone.

“But you don’t want to talk about how that went down. Or what you would’ve done if it was you. No, you? You just want my badge number.”

Cop Out is an indispensable addition to the national discourse because it dares to talk about how these things go down. The audience is forced to consider what we would do if it was us. The effect is a profound recognition of humanity. That’s a prerequisite to any meaningful dialogue.

It can be tempting to roll your eyes when a theater company says their going to “start a dialogue.” After all, beneath that noble progressive intention, what does that look like? What difference could it make?

The August Wilson Red Door Project has started to answer this question. One crucial element is the in-depth talkbacks following each performance. Another is Cop Out’s companion piece Hands Up (which, unlike Cop Out, originated with New York’s The New Black Fest), which balances out the perspective, giving African Americans a chance to express their trauma and outrage.

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These shows and discussions are not magic wands, nor do they presume to be an ultimate solution to the seemingly insurmountable problem of police profiling. But they are a step in the right direction.

Together they are significant opportunities for healing on both sides of the thin blue line.

 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Chris is a producer/journalist/playwright based in Portland. He has produced segments for Oregon Public Broadcasting's daily talk show Think Out Loud, and episodes for the science and environment TV show Oregon Field Guide. As a reporter, his stories have been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He has also published work in The Oregonian, Portland Mercury, Oregon ArtsWatch, Willamette Week, and Street Roots. In his spare time, he enjoys writing and producing plays and short films. He was the recipient of the James Baldwin Memorial Scholarship Fund for Playwriting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His next short film, Wren LaVelle, has been commissioned by Portland Playhouse and will premiere in summer 2023. He recently served as artist in residence at CoHo Theater in Portland, and before that, the School of Contemporary Dance and Thought in Massachusetts. He is currently working as a writer on Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s new show The Americans.
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