A one man show, written and performed by Keith A Wallace is a powerful piece of theatre exploring life and culture in African-American communities and hammers home the message that black lives matter.
In an interview Wallace said that although he draws a diverse crowd, his expected audience was white and middle class. The fact that the piece is designed for people who aren’t as close to the issues of black America helps this show be accessible to an Irish audience, middle class or otherwise.
While guns aren’t fired by police as flippantly here, the theme of state violence is still one that is real for many working class people, making The Axis in Ballymun the perfect home for this show.
Wallace is very honest and upbeat, engaging with the audience and encouraging them to speak to one another, creating the communal atmosphere he describes in North Philidelphia, where the local basketball court attracts the kids and bloc parties are the norm.
Staging this show in the structure of the four quarters and overtime of a basketball game, he brings us through the life of Jamel, speaking honestly about the sometimes tough, but always loving, relationship with his mother. Jamel’s mother tell him the rules of the game “Eyes forward, head up and ego down” and she is very clear that he can not go near any guns “no glue guns, no toy guns..”. This is something that Jamel knows, having seen a shooting first hand at the age of eight.
We meet Jamel in his early 20s again, driving in a rented limo to collect his mother for her birthday when he is stopped by the police. Despite not being in the wrong, things escalate and he is shot.
Wallace at this point changes character, now Jamel’s father who received a voicemail from Jamel pocket dialing him during his encounter with the police. The recording is played and a memorial is set on the stage.
In interviews, Wallace said that the murder of Michael Brown was the death that hit him the hardest and drove this show, saying that “It was a public display, in the way that public lynchings used to take place as a warning sign and display of power and supremacy over people, as if to say, “This is what will happen to you if you defy the powers that be.””
Wallace urges us to record part of what he has to say as he calls out the sympathy of a white community doing nothing to stop police brutality and the killing of black people.
He hands the audience candles as he names those who have died unjustly at the hands of the state.
This is not only an emotive piece to raise awareness but a call to action, to join the protests and demand that police be retrained.
The only failing of this piece is that it demands too little. Wallace hopes that this piece can be used in training police and in making them aware of cultural sensitivity, but in reality, there is deep institutionalised racism, and the capitalist state thrives on racial divisions while the police is there to defend the ruling elite.
Since Trump’s election, racism has grown, from Trump condemning the NFL players kneeling protest to the Charlottesville white supremacist rally.
Trump’s pardoning of sheriff Joe Arpaio, known as America’s toughest sheriff for his abuse of inmates, is one example of how Trump is on the side of the worst offenders of an already deeply corrupt system. He has also began increasing the number of police in disadvantaged and black communities instead of listening to concerns of those affected by police brutality and gun violence.
Of course, this isn’t the case only under Trump. There are issues with how criminals are treated generally, and how black people are stereotyped after centuries of racism.
For example, prison inmates are used as a source of cheap labour by companies.
This means that despite slavery being abolished, African-American people have still been used as slaves as they have been arrested for minor crimes since the end of the civil war and then put to work in prisons.
The Nixon administration also intentionally created association between Herion abuse and black communities, vilifying them, and pushing to have them perceived as destroying communities.
Regan’s war on drugs was on the basis that they were a threat to national security, despite the CIA funding some drug cartels bringing cocaine into inner city areas.
The media assisted in sensationalising the use of drugs among black people and scaremongering, while drug abuse among black people was actually similar to that among whites.
Bill Clinton continued to be tough on crime with his 1994 crime bill, and although he has since apologised for essentially creating a fast track for black men being sent to prison, this apology only came at a time when black voters were needed for Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The fact that the state in America has been historically racist and has been backed by a racist narrative in the media, means that it is not a simple thing to change the outlook of individual police who shoot unarmed black men, nor the system that protects them.
And the fact that the capitalist system benefits from having inmates encourages more people to be put in prisons and black people continue to be targeted.
Liberalism allows for individual black people to succeed while the oppression of the majority continues. The individual successes of black people or working class people are glorified as something anyone can do and assists a narrative focusing on the individual rather than the community and, in essence, blames people for being poor and racially oppressed.
Wallace is right to call on people to stand in solidarity with the black community and fight against institutionalised racism, but only through fighting the root of the issue, the neo-liberal governments defending the capitalist class, can racism really be ended.
His vision, however, that this piece be brought to new communities and schools where this issue needs to be addressed, is a positive goal to educate people about the issue and push them into action.
This pertinent and compelling commentary is, dealing with today’s America will not be lost on an Irish audience. Full of laughter and warmth, it is a masterful combination of poetry, comedy and theatre with a deeply chilling point which resonates long after it has finished.