Sometimes the best thing theater can do is be a megaphone.
“Hands Up!” the cast member calls out to the crowd. Having been coached, the audience responds: “Don’t shoot!”
It’s hard to imagine a play more topical than Fresno State’s “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” which tackles several searing issues of the day, including a strong focus on police violence in America’s black communities. Raw and vociferous, the play is a chance for black voices to be heard loud and clear.
The play was originally commissioned by The New Black Fest theater festival after the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that aroused the nation. While it was envisioned as a series of monologues, Fresno State theater professor and director Thomas-Whit Ellis reimagined the structure, using an ensemble cast of six players to divide up the text.
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This directorial choice works quite well much of the time, expanding the theatrical sense of the piece. Occasionally the technique feels a bit awkward, such as in Nathan Yungerberg’s “Holes in My Identity,” and there’s a learning curve for the audience in terms of understanding that more than one actor is playing a particular character.
But more often, the ensemble approach adds to the dramatic impact of the evening. A good example is Nambi Kelley’s riveting “Dead of Night … The Execution Of …,” a piece that follows a black woman beaten by her white boyfriend. When police are called, the officers immediately jump on the woman, ignore her side of the story and then harass her sexually. It’s a gripping tale. (I love the way Ellis breaks for intermission in the middle of the piece. It’s very effective.)
Though the subject matter is ominous, Ellis also deftly highlights the humor that threads throughout the piece. But the message is clear: Implicit bias and institutional racism is a fact of life, and until you’ve lived through it, you can never really understand what it’s like.
One of the advantages of seven short adapted monologues strung together is variety. Some of the play’s deeper intellectual thrusts are intriguing, such as Eric Holmes’ “Walking Next to Michal Brown (Confessions of a Light-Skinned Half-Breed).” The piece expertly lampoons the oft-spoken lament that if we could all just communicate and talk more, the “misunderstanding” of racism could be cleared up with a snap of the fingers. (The talk-show host Charlie Rose stands in for the smooth, establishment, corporate-pablum mindset.)
Yet in the time that it takes to say “Officer, there must have been a miscommunication,” six shots can be fired.
Other vignettes are weaker, such as Glenn “NSangou” Gordon’s “Abortion,” whose writing feels stilted and theme forced.
The ensemble cast (Arium Andrews, Ashlyn Davis, Deandre Jean-Pierre, Nwachukwu Oputa, Joshua Slack and Jalen Stewart) have a nice chemistry together and share a passion for the material. Liz Waldman’s sound design and Erik Montierth’s lighting design are nice. Elizabeth Payne’s costumes are mostly fine, but I feel they stray a little too much into urban hipster territory.
The problem solver in you might be hoping for more of just that from “Hands Up,” and I’m not sure you’re going to get that when it comes to police violence in black communities. (Then again, with millions of words churned out on the subject in recent months, there have been no breakthroughs there, either.) No easy answers, alas. But no empty platitudes, either.
Most important to me, from my perspective as a non-black viewer of the play: I got a chance to hear and feel, loud and viscerally, what it’s like to confront these issues. “Hands up!” the cast member calls out.
“Don’t shoot!” I reply.
Hands Up: 7 Playwrights. 7 Testaments
- Through Oct. 8
- Fresno State Woods Theatre
- 559-278-2216, www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/theatrearts
- $17, $10 students