"The Bitter Game' takes on police brutality one on one

NORTH ADAMS — "The Bitter Game" isn't a one-on-one contest, but Keith A. Wallace's solo show examining police brutality aims to match that proximity when the actor speaks to the audience, which is often.

"I'm in [a] direct relationship with them," Wallace told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview in advance of his performance Saturday night at Mass MoCA.

Mixing poetry, prose and scripted interactions with the spectators, the play recounts the upbringing of a Philadelphia boy named Jamel, who is black, in five acts that correspond to the four quarters and overtime of a basketball game. Wallace also inhabits other roles, including Jamel's mother, Pam.

The work is semi-autobiographical, according to the actor, who also grew up in the City of Brotherly Love. He created a composite character of people in his life and figures from prominent police brutality cases that have made headlines; the audience will likely recognize details from some of those incidents in the work, he said. Ultimately, his message will be clear.

"What I wanted to communicate with this play is the kind of nuance of the trauma, the anxiety that people — black people and people in communities of color — experience when they are interacting with law enforcement. I wanted to illustrate the kind of psychological and physiological effects that interacting with law enforcement have for people of color. I wanted to communicate the ripple effect of trauma and the vicarious trauma that is experienced in these communities. When one person is murdered, it affects the entire community," said Wallace, who is black.

While Wallace wants his stance to triumph, his goal isn't to merely alter or reinforce the audience's perspective of black people's daily experiences with and without law enforcement present. He wants his work to inspire action; he is a self-proclaimed "actorvist," though he is not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. He's still OK with this association.

"It deals with a lot of the same issues," he said.

Wallace began working on the play following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black man, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Mo. Wilson wasn't indicted, but that doesn't stop Wallace from referring to the event as a crime.

"August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown was murdered, and it obviously wasn't the first instance of police murder, and it certainly wasn't the last," he said, later noting that the play includes a roll call of names from similar incidents at one point. "But that particular case was personal to me in a way that previous ones hadn't (been), and I knew that I had to act. I had to do something."

He staged a silent protest in front of the LOVE sculpture in Philadelphia that month, imitating Michael Brown's lifeless body while tourists snapped selfies around him. Those images went viral.

"I knew at that moment I had a platform," he recalled.

At the time, he was in-between semesters in the University of California, San Diego's master of fine arts acting program. The sunny atmosphere starkly contrasted with his darkened emotional state when he returned, a turmoil that spurred him to begin working on the play.

With help from co-creator Deborah Stein, Wallace first staged "The Bitter Game" on a campus basketball court as a part of La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls Festival in 2015.

"[The] outdoor version is a promenade style experience where the audience will travel with me from one area of the playing space to another," he said, noting that planes flying overhead and other ambient noises can pose challenges.

At Mass MoCA, the audience will see the indoor version at Club B10, an "'up in the club' venue with cabaret-style seating," according to the museum's website. While he was initially concerned about losing the play's audience engagement element by taking it inside, Wallace has grown to enjoy the indoor edition's "easier" set-up and doesn't believe spectators can distance themselves.

"I can be in the aisles, and we have the house lights kind of at a glow so that the audience is not in complete darkness," he said.

Rachel Chanoff, the museum's curator of performing arts, saw the play in January at the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival in New York. She found it highly compelling because of its unique take on subject matter that is increasingly explored in performance.

"It has a shift in tone like people's lives do," Chanoff said.

"It is equal parts party and political resistance," Wallace said.

She spoke with Wallace sometime thereafter about bringing the play to North Adams. The two discussed marketing initiatives that would promote the performance in areas that might not typically frequent the institution. Many community leaders' numbers were dialed in preparation for the event, and Sue Killam, Mass MoCA's managing director of performing arts, reached out to law enforcement about attending, according to Chanoff. Wallace makes marketing to different audiences a prerequisite for him to perform.

"You don't get to do the play without doing the engagement part," he said.

That goes for those attending, too.


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