Saturday, May 31, 2014

Chasing Mehserle, A Review by Wanda Sabir

Chanaka Hodge's Chasing Mehserle, directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Sean San Jose, continues the story of Watts and his mom, Willie, whom we meet in Mirrors in Every Corner, Hodge's first major play, also staged at Intersection for the Arts.

The theatre was full, those in the audience thankful to Z-Space for the extended run there. Hodge's work was new to a lot of audience members, so they'd almost missed an opportunity to see the play since the run at Intersection closed May 8-24, a week earlier.

Chasing Mehserle is not about Oscar Grant, actor Michael Wayne Turner III's "Watts" clearly states during his lengthy prologue. Articulate and well read, Watts, as in brilliant, so brilliant his insight is blinding--he reminds me of James Baldwin, whom he reads. Baldwin was also brilliant. He also could not live in this country, so he left it never to return except to visit. Watts, unfortunately, cannot escape so he draws and studies maps; perhaps he is looking for a space within his world to occupy without fear. In the meantime, he has lived inside his house for 17 years.

It isn't safe for a black boy to leave home, so he reads and reflects and surfs the web and drives Willie, his mom a bit crazy.

This is hip hop theatre which opens with the chorus -- four actors seated on the stairs in the aisles talking back to Watts (on stage) in disbelief or affirmation as the prologue unfurls.

A kid just out of juvenile and looking for a job gets drafted as Watt's alter-ego narrator with an opinion. Puck (actor Danez Smith), is as magical as his namesake in Midsummer Nights. He knows he is imagined, but then, so are the caricatures dangling from the mouths of police who shoot black boys like Oscar Grant dead. This does not stop him from arguing with the protagonist as he pulls him out of harms way more than once or corrects Watts's linguistic choices, often losing himself in reverie or contemplation.

Rodney King drives Watts inside and Mehserle opens the door. Something about the story touches him, opens a layer of his black psyche that traps him and won't let him go. He has to speak to Mehserle, he has to interview everyone who knew the BART police officer who killed Grant. He obsesses about Mehserle. The chase gives his life tangible meaning--perhaps Watt's crusade allows his ideas to crystallize around something tangible.

All of a sudden he can leave the house, go downtown where he last visited when he was a kid with his mom and siblings, shopping for school uniforms. The happy memory recalls yet another incident when Watts was afraid. A moment of camaraderie with a stranger shifts quickly into confrontation when Watts pretends to be hard and is almost killed.

With a plan not quite thought through, Watts is picked up by a rich white boy looking for adventure at a Grant protest. The years tick by as trial leads to acquittal. The scenic design includes juxtaposition of Grant's final moments on the platform to flowers from blood red to white. The only physical set a stair riser with a space below where Watts and his roommate share. It is a porch, a bedroom and entrance to the house Willie (actress Halili Knox) holds onto with a thread.

Watts lives in West Oakland, Oakland, sun in his universe, a place where he sees young men like himself venture out and never return. One young man has been shot six, seven, eight times, the cast laughs--the man can't seem to die. But what a life. Is life any better for those who venture out? Do we blame Watts for staying in doors?

In James Baldwin's seminal The Fire Next Time is a theme running through Searching for Mehserle who is not condemned, just questioned on the social circumstances that allow killers to walk free. What are the residuals behind such an act on the other Oscars? What precedence does judicial sanction set for boys like Watts for the Highway Patrol Officer who stops Watts as he speeds down Highway 5 to LA for Mehserle's trial?

When he is pulled over, Watts whose knowledge of police brutality is intellectual, tastes fear and as he speaks the hand holding the gun doesn't waver. The position he assumes is automatic throughout the play black boys like Watts are lying prostrate--falling prostrate as one by one they are accosted or eliminated. The lines blur as reality and Watts internal narrative become one and the same scene. The difficulty of black manhood is illustrated often as these children raised by mothers like Willie do not see themselves with a future let alone a life.

At some point Watts's crazy idea to find Mehserle and kill him, which is as fantastic as the idea that he will find him and speak to him, gains credibility and his mother joins him in this quest. Eye witnesses to this Grant's assassination share the horror --their voices trembling with the memory they cannot erase. That this happens on President Obama's watch is insulting a foreshadowing of his presidency, one wrought with the deaths or other  black boys like Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, black women and other incidents on BART as recent as less than a month ago when Nubia Bowe is accosted, beaten and arrested, March 21, 2014. Her arraignment is Monday, May 19, 2014, ironincally Malcolm X's birthday. It is also the day that a rally and lobby day is called by All of Us or None and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and others at the Sacramento State Capitol.

I do not know what the outcome was for her case which has a court date in early August. Charges should be dropped, all Nubia did was question the police officers on their treatment of the men she was traveling with, who were not dancing and soliciting money on BART, and for her query she is pulled off the train at Lake Merritt station arrested and beaten, taken into custody and then beaten again. Her arrest eliminated her ability to get a job in her chosen profession.

As Watt's says "this story is larger than Oscar Grant." He's right. The systemic criminalization of black skin in young male (and often) female bodies, holds these victims captive. It didn't matter that witnesses on the train stated that Nubia and her male friends were not dancing or soliciting money. It did not matter that Nubia nor Watts had no prior convictions.

It did not matter when in Watt's case Lyle (actor Dan Wolf), the car thief, confessed; the highway patrol officer looked at actor Lyles's white skin, dismissed his guilt and took Watts away to jail where the young man said later he had to strip nude and suffer other indignities.

While Watts is in jail Lyle (Chasing Mehserle) is put up in a Holiday Inn at the LA county taxpayer's expense. The Mehserle trial just happens to be concluding; Watts and the object of his chase in the same facility.  It is at this moment Mehserle give his "I'm sorry speech." Obviously prompted by legal and political opportunism, the confession rings false and comes way too late to listening ears . . . Oscar's duppies or errant ghosts, the walking dead and those being prepped for the gauntlet.  

Nubia speaks of similar indignities and brutality. She was chained and put bleeding in a straight jacket which limited her mobility. Instead of allowing her to at least sit upright, the police constrained her and then tipped her over into a puddle of urine on the floor. A spit bag kept her from asphyxiating:

The ending is as haunting as the tale which is not over as the cast assures the audience that it is still alive . . . the question is, for how long?

Bravo Chanaka Hodge for another episode in this American tragedy. Chasing Mehserle is at Z-Space, 450 Florida Street, in San Francisco through May 31, 8 p.m. It is sold out, but one never knows. . . .


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