When I hit the streets of San Diego as a beat cop in 1966, that city and many others were embroiled in anti-war demonstrations, campus unrest, and the occasional bombing of a name-brand bank. Also common were peaceful civil rights protests and more militant racial insurrections. The most iconic image of the latter: leather-jacketed, beret-capped, rifle-toting Black Panthers serving breakfast to impoverished inner-city children in one moment and in the next shouting, “Off the pig!” at riot-helmeted cops.
Three decades later, as I stepped down as Seattle’s police chief, tear gas was in the air on the streets of downtown and Capitol Hill, a smarting residue from the “Battle in Seattle.”
What do these two tumultuous eras have in common (other than bookending my career as a cop)? As Seattle playwright Amontaine Aurore makes clear, the answer is … everything.
In her newest play, “Don’t Call it a Riot,” Aurore poses the question, “What would you give up to do the right thing?” For her, it is not a rhetorical question, nor is it necessarily an homage to Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing” (though a qualified case for comparison could be made). The play will be presented at Orcas Center on May 10 and 11.
It’s 1968. Reed (Meysha Harville) is newly married and pregnant. She could be forgiven for retreating to a place of safety and serenity as she prepares to give birth. But that’s not who she is. She is all about helping to create a brave new world of social and economic justice. A world where everyone, including her unborn child, has equal access to freedom, health care, housing, quality education and the kind of happiness that is all but impossible in the face of grinding poverty and inequality.
Seattle’s Black Panther Party of the ’60s, like chapters in Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere, embraced an armed liberation model whose focus was twofold: confronting police—and other institutional—abuses and providing direct aid to historically oppressed and underserved people in the community.
When in Act 1 Reed’s best friend Marti (Lillian Afful-Stratton) moves in with her and her husband Sam (Mic Montgomery), a visionary, charismatic leader of the local Party, the stage is set for an act of betrayal that powerfully affirms the axiom: “the personal is political.”
Act 2, set 31 years later, drives that reality home, and then some. Marti’s daughter, Falala (Skylar Wilkerson), now a “grown ass woman,” and her boyfriend Paris (Robert Lovett), argue over tactics for upcoming protests at 1999’s World Trade Organization ministerial conference. One advocates for property destruction, “if necessary,” and the other steadfastly rejects all forms of violence.
Reed is now living a quieter, more conventional, albeit politically tuned-in life in Los Angeles. Falala invites her to return to Seattle to deliver what she hopes will be an impassioned anti-globalization speech at the protest.
Not until Reed and Marti reunite in Seattle does Reed learn the painful truth of the earlier betrayal, a revelation that leads her to an anguished revision of past events—and their current meaning. If you think you’ve figured out the cause and source of the betrayal, you’re probably wrong.
“Riot” is not all polemic and interpersonal antagonisms. On the contrary, Aurore’s own deft blending and balancing of the political and the personal, and her trademark flair for incorporating humor, music, even joyful, uninhibited dance into her work leavens the production and invites the audience to see the characters, however flawed, as fully formed, fully authentic human beings.
The playwright grew up in an all-white neighborhood and went to a white school. And while raised by a loving, nurturing family – something to which her sister, our own Michell “Mitch” Marshall, president and CEO of Women in the Woods Productions can attest – she was made to feel different. Aurore recently told a reporter that her creative efforts today are intended, in part, to convey the message, “I’m not going to allow anyone to make me feel ‘less than’ [ever again].” One of her aims in life is to “present activism in a light where people can be more cognizant of the demands of the role.” And, presumably, to consciously choose a life of activism over life on the sidelines.
Aurore’s previous productions at the center, “Free Desiree” and “Love Letters Beyond the Veil” – hugely popular with our audiences, and critically acclaimed from Seattle to New York – showcased her talents as a riveting storyteller. She’ll be joining us for the performances on May 10 and 11. A Q&A with the playwright and yours truly will follow both shows.
If good food’s your thing, The Kitchen will be providing small bites before the Friday-night show. And if that’s not enough, both nights will feature an opening act by local treasure, Anthony The Dancer at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. Tickets are available at The Office Cupboard, Orcas Center or online at Strangertickets.com