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'I've had to face the harsh reality that exists in America: black people are not safe'

Playwright Keith Wallace writes about racial inequality, police brutality, and the trauma it inflicts on minority communities in America.

Keith Wallace

“… the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” – Rabbi Joachim Prinz, March on Washington, 1963

IT’S SATURDAY, August 16 2014, a sunny afternoon in Center City Philadelphia. The air is thick. I lie face down for hours, motionless and bloodied, a red ball cap in my left hand.

I’m beneath Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue and there is yellow police tape surrounding the area around my body.

The area is saturated with the usual suspects – tourists – who step up to me, step over me to get that perfect selfie capturing their visit to the City of Brotherly Love.

They move about as if I’m not even there. Much the same way police officers stepped up to, around, and over the body of Michael Brown who, one week earlier was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael’s body was left in the street where he lay face down for hours – four to be exact – motionless and bloodied, his red ball cap spilled out beyond him on the hot asphalt.

Unlike Michael, though, I wasn’t really dead. I wasn’t really bloodied. Hours before, I’d woken up in my North Philly home thinking about him though.

I sat at my computer and typed an artist’s statement, and biked three miles from my house to the city centre, stopping to “borrow” police tape from a construction site, and to purchase fake blood from a grocery store.

This is how I began my spontaneous and silent protest against police brutality. When it was all over, I grabbed my cap, removed the police tape, put on a clean shirt, and biked home.

Within hours the protest had gone viral. Overnight, I became “the guy who always talks about race.” Soon, media outlets and others wanted my thoughts and opinions on racism, racial inequity and possible solutions in the fight for racial justice.

‘I had to educate myself’

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As my protest had been organic and sort of knee-jerk reaction to the epidemic of police murder in the US, I had to educate myself, and do it quickly because what they didn’t understand was that my burning desire to react to this pressing issue didn’t come from readings in books or academic pondering.

It came from a deep fear and disappointment in my lived experience as a black person in America, and I had come to a point at which silence was no longer an option.

The truth of the matter is, I was devastated and that kind of helplessness is debilitating; it’s crippling. Having to face the harsh reality that exists in America: that black people are not safe.

We are not afforded the opportunity to laugh, play, explore, cry, grieve, or mourn the way our white counterparts are.

Instead, we have to daily police our behaviour and in the wake of tragedy, traverse through pain and devastation, “fighting the good fight,” seeking justice, continuously having to prove that our pain is valid, palpable, real, and RELEVANT. What are we supposed to do with all of that?

I thought of the vicarious trauma that I, and so many people of colour in my life experience daily. The panic and terror I feel every time I see a police car or uniform, akin to being called to the principal’s office or breaking your mother’s good china.

I imagined the phone call my mother or sisters would get if I was the next unarmed victim gunned down by a trigger-happy cop who couldn’t look far enough past the colour of my skin. I imagined what dirt the media would dig up, the stories they’d run, the pictures they’d use.

This inability to hold my pain led me, in 2015, to create The Bitter Game, a play that addresses head-on the issues of racial inequity and the trauma it inflicts upon minority communities in America, and black men specifically.

The sleepless nights and mounting anxiety I felt while writing – attempting in my own way to address such a polarising topic as excessive police force – was paralysing. My heart broke daily for the families of the victims whom I used as source material.

But I was lucky: Like my silent protest less than a year earlier, I’d found an outlet, a way to express myself, and to encourage others to find healing through conversation and more importantly, action. Touring nationally from NYC, to LA, to Philadelphia, to DC, to Baltimore to Boston and many other cities has allowed me to engage several communities where this issue persists on a daily basis.

The performances at Axis Ballymun as part of Dublin Theatre Festival will mark the international premiere of The Bitter Game and we couldn’t be more excited.

It’s especially encouraging to know that we have the ear of the world on an issue that’s so specific to American culture and race relations. That engagement and solidarity and the opportunity that the arts creates to hold that kind of space is valuable and necessary. In addition to performances, a part of the work we’re doing in Dublin is engaging with secondary schools and youth groups around issues of racial injustice that they encounter on a daily basis and what can be done to disrupt those systems.

The two truths

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Today, I am reminded of these two truths: For the artist, heartbreak is a rite of passage, and that the thin line between art and activism must be traversed with courage. This is my truth.

My country, our world is erupting. With this play I implore you to act now because the sobering reality is that in order to affect change, the majority must be willing to admit hard truths and listen with compassion.

We need all people to speak truth to power but also to listen with rapt attention and openness. Empathy is a choice and it is the responsibility of each of us to exercise it with diligence and unwavering commitment. It’s time to get focused and come together to demand as much for the other, as we do for ourselves, so that my black brothers and sisters can be seen, heard and most importantly, understood.

Don’t wait for another Philando Castile headline. Don’t wait for a phone call of your own.

Be on the right side of history. Seek justice. March. Protest. Have the difficult conversations you’ve been avoiding. Educate yourself. Educate others. Be an ally for those who need it most. Be a shoulder for someone to cry on. Demand justice and equity from your legislators. Speak. Listen.

But whatever you do… don’t remain silent. Fight.

Keith Wallace presents The Bitter Game at Axis Ballymun as part of Dublin Theatre Festival from Thursday 5 to Saturday 7 October. Tickets 18/16e.

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Keith Wallace

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