Fort Worth — When director Bernard Cummings decided to helm his first show for Jubilee Theatre, he selected a play he’d been familiar with since his early college days back at Tyler Community College: Dennis McIntyre’s searing 1984 drama Split Second. Cummings was interim artistic director at Jubilee Theatre during the 2017-’18 season and programmed the entire current season. He’d previously had an original script produced at Jubilee in 2001—The Grandmama Tree, directed by the company’s legendary founder Rudy Eastman.
“Back in the ‘80s, I was a member of the Fireside Theatre book club,” remembers Cummings, who’s an associate theater professor at Southern Methodist University and calls Harlem, NY home. “It was a kind of ‘book of the month’ club for new scripts. The play made a big splash when it premiered in the Reagan ’80s, and then went away for a long time. Now it’s come back, with all the discussions we’re having about police and race relations.”
Split Second, which is in previews through May 30 and opens on May 31, concerns a highly respected black cop (Reginald Wilcox III) in New York City who arrests a white man (Jon Garrard) for petty theft. The suspect begins to racially taunt the African-American officer, whose natural reaction is rage. It’s not giving too much away to the say the cop, a Vietnam veteran with untreated PTSD symptoms, shoots the white suspect and arranges the scene to look like self-defense. All of that happens in the opening moments of the show; the rest of the play unfolds as the family of the policeman, including his wife and father, also a veteran cop, react to the killing and the question of the shooter’s guilt or innocence.
To director Cummings, one of the most interesting aspects of Split Second is that the races of perpetrator and victim are switched, at least as far as our expectations from the ubiquitous news headlines of recent years: playwright McIntyre (who died in 1990 at age 47) made the guilty policeman black and the “innocent” dead man white. That will stir up conversations all by itself, Cummings hopes.
“It really makes you pause a minute and go, ‘Huh,” Cummings said of the unusual racial dynamics in the script. “I’m waiting to see how it will be received. And of course, getting audiences talking after a show is one of your major goals as a director.”
Cummings very much wanted to weave a rich atmosphere of time and place, and he decided one of the best ways to do that was the artful use of some of the biggest pop hits of the 1980s. He worked closely with sound designer David Lanza for a kind of background tapestry of greatest hits, or at least pieces of those hits.
“I wanted just the ‘hooks’ from the songs,” Cummings said, “blasting out of the windows of cars passing outside the building as the character interact.” And so audiences will catch carefully selected snippets of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, and other mainstays of that era.
In the end, Cumming says, he was less interested in the fiery polemics of racial issues than developing the back stories of characters with the actors during the production’s relatively short rehearsal period.
“You have to find the human element in every script,” Cummings notes. “Nobody wants to be hit over the head with A Message. You have to couch the play in close relationships. The actors really developed the lives of these people. It was fun to watch what they came up with.”