Book and Lyrics by Chuk Obasi; Music by Fariddudin F. Johnson and Chuk Obasi
Directed by Chuk Obasi
Part of the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 8.29.15
VENUE #1: Teatro SEA at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street
by Rachel Abrams on 8.18.15
BOTTOM LINE: An empathetic look at community members and their local police struggling to solve their city’s street violence problems.
At first glance, Uniform Justice seems like it would be a typical social justice play responding to police altercations with racial minorities across the nation (and specifically, police relationships with the Memphis community, where the Mayor’s office commissioned the play)…but then, it’s not.
Rather than a play that merely blames all police officers or all community members who “incite” the police, Uniform Justice encourages empathy on all sides, standing out rhetorically and artistically. Not only is the play a timely commentary alongside the highly publicized police altercations in the past year, but it also offers a unique, insightful, and not didactic way to promote understanding on all sides and inspire change.
Uniform Justice is particularly successful in offering perspectives on community policing not commonly illustrated in the media. Of course, we see the parents and grandparents fearful for their children’s lives on the street, and the young people who don’t trust the cops to look out for them. The play even opens with a young man named Jay (Donovan Christie) being handcuffed in an altercation with police officers Rob and Charlie (played by Aundra Goodrum and Karen Eilbacher, respectively). We see onlookers filming the incident on their cell phones, an image all too familiar in today’s socio-political climate. But in that moment, the focus shifts from merely blaming the cops handcuffing Jay to understanding the situation from the cops’ perspective as well.
The play then flashes back to Rob’s high school prom, hanging out with his friends, Jay (the same Jay we saw Rob fighting with in the opening scene) and Flip (Christopher Brown). Rob recounts the moments in his life and in their community that lead him to confronting Jay on the street. When Rob becomes a police officer in his childhood neighborhood, he struggles to balance his passion for serving his city and his personal desires as a friend, parent-to-be, and fellow community member. Simultaneously, we watch Memphis’ minority community navigate their need for law enforcement’s protection while distrusting the police force as a system that has never properly served them.
Playwright Chuk Obasi differentiates his story from the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray cases that have primarily focused, quite literally, on the black-and-white issues in community policing. To start, all of the actors are racial minorities, including the actors playing cops. By situating the conflict between a minority police team and the minority community where they serve, Uniform Justice seems more concerned with examining policing as an institution rather than merely blaming racism for the whole situation (while still respectfully acknowledging that people in minority communities are more likely to be stopped without reason, unjustly arrested, etc.).
In addition, Rob’s role as a community member where he also polices complicates the dynamics between himself and the people he is trying to help. In the post-show talkback after the opening performance, Obasi said that he felt this was an important aspect of Memphis policing to highlight, especially since Obasi grew up accustomed to NYC police not working in the same neighborhoods where they live. These crucial details help Obasi highlight the “grey areas” in police-community relations, and lead to a more nuanced conversation about the institutional problems police and community members alike face that prevent them from properly communicating their needs to each other.
The moderator at the post-show talkback closed by saying that this is the kind of work that needs to be sold out every night. I couldn’t agree more.
(Uniform Justice plays at VENUE #1: Teatro SEA at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, through August 29, 2015. Performances are Sun 8/16 at 3; Wed 8/19 at 9:15; Fri 8/21 at 7; Tue 8/25 at 9:30; and Sat 8/29 at 4:30. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit uniformjusticetheplay.com.)