In roughly three weeks, a San Diego basketball court will be used as a stage to premiere a play about police violence written by a Philadelphia-born actor.
In roughly three weeks, a San Diego basketball court will be used as a stage to premiere a play about police violence written by a Philadelphia-born actor, the set will include memorials – one for Mr. Brandon Tate-Brown, a 26-year-old black man killed by a Philadelphia police officer last year – and the mother of Mr. Tate-Brown, moreover her persistence in the quest for justice, served as a muse for one of the main characters.
The playwright, 28 year-old Mr. Keith Wallace who grew up in North Philadelphia, followed news stories about the December 15th fatal officer-involved shooting while writing ‘The Bitter Game,’ which examines the relationship between a young man and his mother as each struggle to protect one another from a world where the value of their black lives seem priceless only to them.
A Master of Fine Arts Acting Candidate enrolled at the University of California (San Diego), Mr. Wallace – who while an undergrad was able to come to terms with his fear of police – is debuting on October 9th as a playwright with this site specific piece and he wants it to “feel as much like Philly” as possible, down to the sometimes uncertainty and uneasiness felt when stepping on a basketball court in the hood.
The significance of staging an avant-garde performance about police terror on a basketball court serves as a metaphor for how black men must learn to play the game of life, but it’s also another homage to home, more specifically North Philadelphia, where basketball courts are the “quintessential landmark,” said Mr. Wallace, who told me this work will allow him, for the first time, to “really honor North Philly,” a place where, for a long time, he was silent about and somewhat ashamed of.
“There are two basketball courts in my neighborhood. The courts are the epicenter of activity, but there was one that we weren’t allowed to go to, my mother called it a ‘bucket of blood,'” said Mr. Wallace, who describes drug dealers on every corner and “people getting shot in broad daylight” as a normal site to see as a poor black kid growing up at 18th & Dauphin, blocks from the once regal Uptown Theater.
Growing up in what many would label a dangerous and challenged neighborhood, Mr. Wallace was lucky to have a mother whose unconditional love served as both a literal and figurative safe house.
Mr. Wallace’s mother, though not necessarily a muse for his script, is undoubtedly on his mind as he prepares for the performance; and in the larger picture, as he tries to appreciate life while figuring out how to stay alive.
“I don’t want my mother receiving a call about me dying during a traffic stop,” he said, “I have this image of grieving black mothers, and they’re unable to grieve because they more than likely have to fight for justice and their child’s personal effects.”
Mr. Wallace’s image of a grieving black mother who lost her child to police violence is quite true to reality when you consider Ms. Tanya Brown-Dickerson, Mr. Tate-Brown’s mother, marched and protested through snow and rain just to gain access to the videos of her son’s murder and to know the name of the shooter.
His depiction is also similar to Ms. Del Matthews’ reality: a grieving North Philadelphia mother who considered a closed casket for her son, Mr. Frank McQueen, because Chester police shot him so severely.
Like Ms. Brown-Dickerson, Ms. Matthews has been unable to grieve, because she’s fighting for basic information about her son’s murder and is trying to obtain his personal effects, like his cell phone and wallet, from an uncooperative and unresponsive police department.
Ms. Matthews, since the loss of her son – a published author and budding minister – has attended almost every anti-police violence protest in the City, urging onlookers and those passing by to join her.
“Don’t wait until it (police violence) happens to you, someone you care for or love, before you decide to help fight this battle,” shouted Ms. Matthews this week at a rally which protested the death of Ms. Natasha McKenna, a black woman in Virginia who died while in police custody earlier this year.
Like Ms. Matthews, Mrs. Brown-Dickerson got engaged in activism after her son’s death. She attended and spoke at her first protest the day before Mr. Tate-Brown’s funeral.
The “psychology of a grieving mother turned activist” is what Mr. Wallace is hoping to understand and tap into in order to make the maternalistic character on the San Diego basketball court as believable as possible.
If you’d told Mr. Wallace six months ago that he’d be working on this project, “I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said.
Before being commissioned to write his own play, Mr. Wallace pitched a script he was a fan of. During his presentation, he dissolved, albeit momentarily, the need to placate white people with his speech, speaking unapologetically as a scared black man who often feels hunted instead of honored.
The end result: his audience turned down the proposal, but because he spoke with such honesty and emotion, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to produce a piece of work during an international festival was soon granted.
Admittedly, Mr. Wallace hasn’t had much time to reflect on this milestone. When we spoke yesterday, he was leaving one rehearsal and heading to another, not to mention school started for him this week, too.
“I’m trying my best to not have these experiences be lost on me; I really want to appreciate the moment.”
A moment Mr. Wallace created that went viral last year was a one-man protest wherein he laid on the hot concrete in Philadelphia’s Love Park, recreating Mr. Michael Brown’s crime scene.
Mr. Wallace suffered surface skin burns during the performance and when he got up from the ground, his body was cramped, and he still had to bike back home to North Philadelphia and jump on a plane to San Diego the next day.
But all the physical pain was worth it, as the artistic response to the Ferguson grand jury’s decision helped him cope with the injustice.
“I took it pretty rough when the decision was made public, it f*cked me up a bit,” he said.
Mr. Wallace also penned an open letter, detailing his frustrations, and published it exclusively with Techbook Online. He was also interviewed last December on The Dr. Vibe Show about the role of art and theater in the anti-police violence movement.
Mr. Wallace’s accomplishments are newsworthy by most measures, but what’s truly extraordinary is that this millennial who’s making a name for himself in theater, saw his first play only years ago at the Merriam Theater in Center City Philadelphia.
Working towards the Tony awards and Broadway, Mr. Wallace in the present-day is content with exposing whatever audience he garners to real life Black America.
“No matter where you are in life, you have the power to impact the world,” he said.
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