Riverside Theatre boldly embraces a divisive conversation with season opener ‘Black and Blue’

Black and Blue

Riverside Theatre — through Sept. 25

Alyssa Perry and Barrington Vaxter in Sean Christopher Lewis' 'Black and Blue' -- photo courtesy of Riverside Theatre
Alyssa Perry and Barrington Vaxter in Sean Christopher Lewis’ ‘Black and Blue’ — photo courtesy of Riverside Theatre

The conversation about race and police brutality in our country has, in recent years, become about as divisive and vicious as such a thing can get. At public protests, on personal Facebook feeds, and in the comments sections on news articles, people continue to speak — or scream — past each other with all-too-easy slogans and labels. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. Don’t all lives matter? Your opinion doesn’t matter because I’ve already skimmed your post and summed you up. You’re a bigot, or a radical. A Nazi, a thug. With the amazing technology at our disposal, we somehow turn a very serious problem into a public pissing match and nothing gets solved; everyone just ends up madder than before.

The very powerful thing about the art of drama — the age-old social medium of getting up in front of each other and telling stories — is that we’ve come to an agreement that we’re not going to interrupt, at least until the lights come up again, not even to cough or crinkle candy wrappers. This means a very real, very charged situation can be examined, from all its uncomfortable angles, in all its messy reality, in the context of a story and we just have to take it all in, to really stop and hear what people are going through. The best drama accepts that there are no easy answers, and instead strives to state the question poetically and potently. This is the job Sean Christopher Lewis’ Black and Blue, which opened at Riverside Theatre this weekend, does with startling energy.

Ryan West as Charlie in 'Black and Blue' -- photo courtesy of Riverside Theatre
Ryan West as Charlie in ‘Black and Blue’ — photo courtesy of Riverside Theatre
The action centers around a white police officer, Charlie (Ryan West) and a black man he arrested ten years ago, when he was just a rookie. Marcus (Barrington Vaxter), who Charlie nearly choked to death, was hospitalized for his injuries, and Charlie was never disciplined. Charlie’s sister Charlotte (Alyssa Perry), troubled by her family’s history of racism, learns about the incident, and brings Marcus to confront Charlie. Marcus has not adjusted well — he is clearly traumatized, and his mannerisms betray his fear and paranoia — and what was supposed to be a healing moment becomes a situation more intense than any of the parties expected.

Lewis, who also directs, has written a script that is daring, funny, brutal and unabashedly compassionate. Perhaps the most effective part is that these four characters — the last to enter being Charlie’s girlfriend, Lori (Tierra Plowden), who to everybody’s surprise happens to be black — are not simply stand-ins for ideologies but are fully fleshed-out people. Lewis takes his time developing the relationship between the siblings before dropping the bombshell that ultimately divides them. So while the situation is obviously designed to examine this social problem, both writer/director and actors are putting enormous creative energy into making the situation real. We understand why they’re behaving the way they do, even if those behaviors are irrational and awful.

Vaxter’s Marcus is intriguing and well-developed. When we first see him on stage, his physical work shows you how damaged this person is; a twitchy restlessness and a general unease suggest that the beating was so bad he has PTSD. His personality also belies the stereotype of the aggressive, uneducated black man: This is a slightly nerdy, anxious introvert who wants to write a comic book about his experiences. The internal struggle goes deep here. He wants to believe that people are good, relate to Charlie as a person and try to understand his actions, but life has made him angry and defensive. Vaxter is fascinating to watch and Marcus is easy to relate to, though at the same time frightening, as he doesn’t seem to have a strong grip on his emotions.

Charlie and Charlotte have a lot of stage time to build a relationship, and West and Perry take full advantage of this. Through their back-and-forth and close listening, and especially their ease with the moments of uncomfortable silence, the actors build a very believable pair of siblings. We see tenderness and antagonism, and most of all a shared history. This is vital because it highlights one of the most important points of the play: The racial tensions in our culture are inherited by the next generation, and they seem to be getting worse. Charlotte has always been ill-at-ease with the background bigotry that comes from living in a family of police, and this puts Charlie on the defensive. When she finds out about the beating and he finds out she’s been involved with Black Lives Matter, it drives a wedge between them. What was once a home filled with generations of proud police officers is being split by one question: Can’t we admit it when we do wrong?

Charlie can’t accept that he has to apologize, or that the citizens he protect have any room to complain about their manner of protection. He takes it personally when the idea of protest comes up: “Those protests are against me.” We’ve heard this before, of course, and it can be difficult to listen to. The success in West’s performance, however, is that this isn’t a comic-book villain for the playwright to bash on. He’s a real person, who cared enough about his city to take a dangerous job. And he’s also a vulnerable person, who, as hard as it is for him to admit it, gets frightened and overreacts. In a little coda at the end of the emotional roller coaster, he has a monologue about a drawing he saw with a cop hugging a black man. “I didn’t know what to do with it,” he admits. He knows in his heart that something needs to be done, but he’s trapped by circumstance, by society, by his own pride.

Tierra Plowden as Lori in 'Black and Blue' -- photo courtesy of Riverside Theatre
Tierra Plowden as Lori in ‘Black and Blue’ — photo courtesy of Riverside Theatre
Lori ends up being the moral center, or at least the voice of reason, in the play. Plowden has a calm strength and a stillness that communicates volumes, and it helps her get at the root of this character. She immediately calls Marcus on his BS; while he is the one who was wronged, he’s also acting unstable, and when he gets on her case for dating a white man she immediately shuts him down and takes over the situation. She’s the only one who can reach Charlie; she tries to talk him down and get him to listen to Marcus, and when he shows how deep his hatred goes she’s ready to cut ties with him at once. She seems to be the strongest character, mainly because she knows exactly who she is and what she wants.

Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s set does a wonderful job of fleshing out Lewis’ world. In a practical sense, splitting a stage into a living room and a back yard with wide windows for sightlines creates a sense of a space that’s a lot larger than it actually is. In addition, the look of the room just gets to you after a while, and that’s perfect for this play. The house is starting to show wear — Dad is in a retirement home and Charlie hasn’t changed a thing — and little details like the mold in the corners give the sense of a place that was once comforting but is now a bit scary. It reminds us of our own teetering self-assurance, as if the certainty that we’re doing the right thing is beginning to show a little wear. It’s a great atmosphere for a powerful yet uncomfortable show.

I urge everyone reading to go see this play. It’s not often enough that we get to see an artist with the bravery and community awareness of Sean Christopher Lewis get a platform like this to show what he can do. Riverside Theatre is entering a new era, and a powerful original piece that speaks to this very moment, perform by passionate local actors, is a great way to kick of this new season. Get tickets now. Black and Blue runs through Sept. 25 at Riverside Theatre; tickets are $12-30.

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