Cop a Plea

A tepid police-brutality drama misses the target at Karamu.

Split Second Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street Through April 24; 216-795-7077
Tension flares around Val (left) and William.
Tension flares around Val (left) and William.
In the past 20 years, there must have been at least a billion cop shows on TV, what with CSI-this and Law & Order-that, and a fair chunk of those scripts had something to do with police brutality. Small wonder, for there's nothing more terrifying than the thought of our armed protectors using the weight of their authority and armaments to abuse suspects or civilians.

This idea apparently occurred to Dennis McIntyre in the early '80s, when he wrote Split Second, a play about an African American cop fatally shooting a white car thief, now being presented at Karamu. Of course, McIntyre couldn't have known that events in the ensuing two decades would far outpace his imagined scenario. Who would have dreamed that a gaggle of white police officers would riddle Amadou Diallo with bullets -- hitting him 41 times, like a paper target on the practice range -- and then be acquitted of all charges? Who would have conceived of white officers using a nightstick to beat and sodomize Haitian immigrant Abner Louima -- or that their convictions would be reversed?

Both fact and fiction have advanced our awareness of police misbehavior since McIntyre penned his work -- which is unfortunate, since there are some interesting moments in this piece. But overall, the story seems as stale as one of Kojak's half-slurped Tootsie Roll Pops, and the shooter's rationale for his moment of homicidal indiscretion is just as icky. As for the staging, while a couple of performers deliver their parts with panache, the weaker actors exert a drag on the entire production.

The action is set in Manhattan on the Fourth of July and two days following, as a young white punk named William is chased down and handcuffed by black officer Val. William's lighthearted negotiations for leniency segue into a volley of racist epithets directed at Val, who swallows it all until he suddenly turns on the kid and caps him. Val quickly releases the cuffs and plants a knife in the corpse's hand to suggest justifiable use of force.

But almost immediately, Val gets a serious case of the NYPD blues as he's interrogated back at the precinct by Parker, a black officer. This is the play's most interesting scene, with Richard H. Morris Jr. (who doubles as set designer, creating an elegant black-and-white cityscape) giving Parker a believable skepticism, interweaving tough questions with humorous asides, and at one point admitting, "I can't help it, I've been thinking about eating a ham sandwich for the last five minutes." Parker has serious doubts regarding Vietnam veteran Val's story -- especially since the cop claims that he shot when William was pivoting toward him with a knife, but still miraculously managed to put one shot straight through the young man's heart.

After that, Val has soul-searching conversations with his cop buddy Charlie and wife, Alea, who support him, and his father Rusty, who challenges his son to speak the truth. This is the moral fulcrum on which McIntyre's play teeters: whether a policeman should admit to his wrongdoing and whether his being black changes that ethical calculation. Regrettably, the playwright doesn't have any fresh insights on this topic and eventually has Val fall back on the lame defense that he's so tired of being called "nigger" by assorted crackers that he finally shot the white guy. That's not only a weak argument (based on that thinking, the much-insulted baseball star Jackie Robinson would have been justified in mowing down the entire population of Weehawken, New Jersey), but also timeworn.

On the plus side, Lisa Langford (double-cast with J. Khalleelah Tate) is a compelling Alea, fighting to maintain her life with Val. As Rusty on this night (the father's role is also double-cast with Van Jackson), Cornell Calhoun III hit a true balance between love for his son and his commitment to honorable policing.

But M. Scott Newson doesn't come close to making Val a credibly troubled cop. By continually pacing the floor, stroking his chin, and rubbing his bald head, Newson displays all the mannerisms of torment, but none of the essence. Even though he has extended talks about the subject at hand, we never see Val evolve. Perhaps the actor he shares this role with, Kenny Parker, will fare better. As Charlie, Willie Walker Gibson shows off some great stage moves and an interestingly slurred vocal style, but his timing is so haphazard that his long scenes with Val turn into forced dialogue marches. And the less said of Russell Brown's superficially mannered turn as William, the better. It's just fortunate that he's shot so soon.

Gifted artistic director Terrence Spivey is doing marvelous work at Karamu, but his direction of Split Second doesn't demand enough from the central characters, relying too much on stock interpretations. We need more from cop dramas these days.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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