Why we need another ‘race play’

Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherf**ker with the Hat, The Get-Down) opened at Artists Repertory Theatre on Saturday, March 10. This production is only four years after the premiere by the Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater in New York City, where the play won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

I assigned my Writing As Critical Inquiry class to attend this play for their final paper. While attending, one student’s friend overheard a white person sitting behind them say, “I’m so tired of race plays. Race plays are fine, but at some point give me something else.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: White Portland audiences, get your shit together.

Between Riverside and Crazy tells the story of Pops (Kevin Jones), a Black veteran who was  forced into retirement from the New York Police Department after he was shot six times by a rookie white cop after visiting a bar after hours. Pops lives in an old, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive with his son Junior (Bobby Bermea), Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Julana Torres), their friend and recovering addict Oswaldo (Illya Torres-Garner) and the dusty memories of Pops’ dead wife.

Everyone wants something from Pops. From his roommates, love. His former partner Detective Audrey O’Connor (Val Landrum) and her fiance Lieutenant Dave Caro (Ben Newman) want him to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding the shooting, but Pops is still trying to hold out for a settlement and some semblance of justice. The Church Lady (Ayanna Berkshire) wants him to take communion—in the biblical sense.

Between is about truth and blame, or so it seems. It’s about addiction, New York and toxic masculinity. It’s about disabled bodies, fatherhood and family. It’s Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and what it means to be successful. The play is about ulterior motives and every shade of gray. I don’t have a quick and witty line to sell you on what Between boils down to because it refuses to be reduced.

Jones’ performance as Pops shines like a bright and angry light that fills the theater. Whether we are witnessing Pops do a goofy little dance as he drowns himself in another glass of whiskey or taking control of his situation from a hospital bed, it’s impossible not to be drawn in to his character.

The production is filled with moments of uproarious laughter followed immediately by characters revealing their ugly truths and hurtful opinions—all before the audience has even finished laughing. In the first act, Pops and Junior have an argument about Pops’ lawyers, Lubenthal and Lubenthal, where they refer to the lawyers in every line. It’s like a goofy tongue twister. Before the audience has a chance to notice how the argument has grown beyond a simple disagreement, Junior begins to yell at Pops about something his mother once told him, disparaging Pops’ character. Moments such as these feel like a punch to the gut where you’re not sure what emotional reaction you’re supposed to have. Oh god, is it okay that I’m still laughing? Well, that escalated. How did we get here?

Between is a fictional narrative, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in the news tonight, in the memoir section of a bookstore, or as an essay in The New Yorker. Between stands on its own for many reasons.

So then, why do we need another race play? Because you’re still asking this question.

I hope the play answered this man’s question, as it directly responds to it: Pops doesn’t get to cast off his Blackness at his own convenience.

Whether he is speaking to the cops as a fellow officer or speaking to his landlord as a tenant, he’s always aware of how everyone identifies him by his skin color first. Fictional narratives have always been used to talk about real world problems and we, the audience, have always used art to unpack the realities of the world we live in. Between doesn’t go out of its way to place blame on any one person for the events that transpire, but it allows us to empathise and make our own judgements.

But I don’t need to tell you that—I am not the person you should be listening to. Pops speaks for himself plenty.

Between Riverside and Crazy will be at the Artists Repertory Theatre through April 1.