Fort Worth — In the age of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it’s hard to imagine a conversation about race relations and police brutality that doesn’t posit African-Americans as the perpetual victim. The ubiquity of such headlines as “They killed another young black man in America” has made little more than stock characters of law enforcement officials and the American black male within a depressingly recursive national narrative.
The way this prevailing dynamic has framed the police brutality crisis does, indeed, open the door for crucial conversations to be had, however playwright Dennis McIntyre’s approach yields a perspective that accounts for more of the complexities of human nature as they may apply to our sociopolitical dilemma. In his 1984 play Split Second, McIntyre flips the script (not to put too fine a point on it) by giving the African-American the badge and the white man an untimely demise.
Jubilee Theatre’s production of the work, directed by Bernard Cummings and set in the mid-1980s, presents McIntyre’s script with, what is at times, an overindulgence of the drama, but an overall effective interpretation. Set designer Amy Poe makes clever use of the intimate theater in order to provide seamless transitions from scene to scene.
The first act opens with the play’s most critical liability. Esteemed and respected detective Val Johnson (Reginald Wilcox, II) has cornered a vagrant career criminal named Willis (Jon Garrard) after catching him in the act of grand theft auto. After cuffing him and calling for transportation, as is the protocol, Val starts to receive a barrage of racial insults and demeaning slights from his captive. Garrard’s slick and slimy New-Yorker is convincing as he quickly progresses from desperation to outright belligerent provocation. It isn’t long before Willis’ baiting gets the better of the stoic Officer Johnson and a single gunshot rings through the alley.
Black cop kills unarmed white man.
After he fixes the scene to look like an accident, the duration of the play deals with Val’s struggle with whether to do the right thing and come clean. His internal dialogue is expounded through interactions with his wife Alea (the dynamically engaging Chris Sanders), his friend and fellow Vietnam war veteran Charlie (Kenne Earl), and his stiff and aloof father, who is a former police officer himself, Rusty (Alonzo Waller).
McIntyre’s writing lends rather predictable dialogue with little room for much character development, apart from Val and Alea. The sum total of the repercussions of his actions on his family are perhaps the most poignantly arranged vehicle for driving home the central themes of the plot. Alea, whom Sanders gives convincing depth as she grows from passively supportive to angrily insistent, embodies the implications of the decisions we make as African-Americans in a country that continually seems to let us down. Sanders’ portrayal lifts this production with an energetic ebb and flow that matches Wilcox’s brooding, and at one point raging, Val Johnson.
Culminating in a tense and surprising ending, where Val meets with the fastidiously scrutinizing police captain Parker (Eric Berg), the plot presents a plethora of important questions for the audience to ponder.
Director Cummings has arranged the players in a way that gives credence to these questions and forces us — particularly those of us in the African-American community — to go inward and ask, “What would you have done?” When juxtaposed against today’s grim state of affairs, it’s a question that takes on a whole new meaning.