Theater: White Cop Threw Black Teen Out of Window, or Did He?Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Dead Dog Park
Two cops in Dead Dog Park chase black teenagers into an abandoned building. One chases his suspect up to the roof and the other to the fourth floor. The cop on the fourth floor then pushes his teen suspect, Tyler Chapin, out of a window and he falls to the ground, nearly killed. Someone saw him do it. Did the witness get it right, though? Did it really happen that way?
That is the plot of Dead Dog Park, a scalding new play by Barry Malawar, that just opened at the 59E59 Theaters in New York. The drama highlights the seemingly never ending clashes between city police and the African American community in real life. Whether it is victims such as Michael Brown in Missouri, Trayvon Martin in Florida, Tamir Rice in Ohio or Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the white cop assaulting young black men syndrome has become a hot topic of conversation from coast to coast and the source of weeks of loud, raucous protest marches, hundreds of newspaper editorials and a seething anger that has been rolling across the country. Comic Chris Rock even talked about it at the Oscar Awards show on Sunday night.
Here, in Dead Dog Park, playwright Malawar tries to look at both sides of the issue and then, at the end, comes down firmly on one side. It is an absorbing look at the cop/teen issue and probes not just the incident itself, but emotional make-up of the cop, Rob McDonald, the teen, Tyler Chapin, the cop’s partner, Ricky Romero, who says he did not see the pushing incident but might have, the cop’s unhappy wife, Angela, and the teen’s distraught mom, Sharonne.
The strife between white cops and the African American community, Malawar suggests, extends many years beyond the incident itself. He’s right, of course. Look at the prolonged protests in all of the white cop/black teen cases in America over the last few years.
But what makes this play so good are the stories of the other people connected to the event. It turns out that McDonald’s cop friend put in papers to drop him as a partner because he did not like him. Then it is revealed that McDonald and his wife are living in different homes because of the incident. The wife suspects he did shove the boy out the window. Problems in McDonald’s past pop up to hurt him.
The teen, Chapin, had his troubles, too. Why was he in the park when he was supposed to be in school? Was he connected to drug cases at the school?
The big question, of course, is whether or not the cop did push the kid through the window and nearly kill him, as a witness said.
Is he guilty? Will he be charged or will there be a blue wall cover-up?
Director Eric Tucker has done a fine job of making a powerful script even bolder and has overseen the play on a nearly bare stage with just a table and a few chairs for the set. He gets gripping performances by Tom O’Keefe as McDonald, Mios Oovea as his partner, Sussanah Millonzi as McDonald’s wife, Eboni Flowers as the teen’s mom, Ryan Quinn as John Jones, a lawyer, and a sensational Jude Tibeau as the teenager Tyler, who suddenly bolts out of the audience at the end of the play to confront the cop.
There has been much news coverage of the killings of young black men by white police officers over the past few years. In 2015, 24 young black men were killed by police. A study by the Guardian newspaper showed that young black men were nine times as likely to be shot by the police as young white men. It is not a recent phenomenon, either. In a recent article published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, “Shoot to Kill, the Use of Deadly Force by the Chicago Police, 1875 – 1920,” writer Jerry Adler said that a study of police violence in Chicago during those years showed that blacks made up three per cent of Chicago’s population but accounted for 21% of all men killed by police. Another study from 1950 to 1970 in Chicago showed the same general statistical prejudice. A study of New Orleans police killings from 1921 to1945 showed that 168 black men were killed by police, and in nearly 70% of those cases it was a white cop who did the shooting.
In those years, as today, police always claimed that shots were fired in a tense situation, or they believed that the slain victim had pulled a gun. Police say they are under tremendous pressure in street confrontations. Over the years, in Chicago, especially, juries have often taken the police side in racial killings and seen them as self-defense, according to writer Adler. In Dead Dog Park, the cop pleads that he was trying to save the kid from falling out the window.
Those outraged by these racial shootings blame the police and have come up with catch phrases that have caught on with the public, such as “Black Lives Matter.”
Now, you could argue that the playwright was trying to cash in on the racial tensions that have caused so much distress in America lately, especially between the police and African American teens, but that would not be fair. Playwright Malawar has churned out a fiery script that probes the lives of a half dozen people, not just the cop and his victim. These stories often do not appear in TV and newspaper accounts of crises, whether racial or not. He has done a laudable job. It is a job that needs to be done, again and again, until America can figure out how to stop these incidents, sometimes deadly. Black lives do matter, as do Hispanic lives, gay lives and the lives of everyone and anyone who was unfairly harmed by a police officer. But, too, the cops need help to do their job better and a little understanding of the pressure they are under by the public. They do not need sensitivity training, as is often suggested, but training to look at crimes and people in a whole new way to prevent more troubles like the recent killings of young black men.
Plays like Dead Dog Park do that. They look at a crisis from the cop’s point of view as well as the victim’s and point out other ways to make arrests.
If this isn’t done, and soon, and nationwide, it won’t just be that black lives do not matter, but that no one’s life matters.
I just wish that police officers, always so defensive of their actions, could see this emotional and striking play or at least be given copies of the script to study.
PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Boz and the Bard Productions, Inc., Sola Lupa Productions, LLC., and Sharon Perl in association with Bedlam. Set: John McDermott, Costumes: Whitney Locher, Lighting: Joyce Liao, Assistant Director: Emily Lyon. The play is directed by Eric Tucker. It runs through March 6.