Watts doesn’t feel safe in this world anymore. In fact, Watts has never felt safe. Living in West Oakland, he resolved never to leave the house again after the 1991 Rodney King beating by police and the subsequent riots. Then still a child, Watts decided that if that was how black men were treated in the world outside, it would be madness to ever go out again. So for decades he’s just been holed up in his room, reading books. Now pushing 30, he finally summons the will to go out when his mother insists he get a job. It’s New Year’s Day, 2009, and the United States has elected an African-American president. Surely it must be safe now, right?
When he finally ventures out and learns that BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot passenger Oscar Grant the night before while the unarmed young man was lying face down on the ground, it causes more than a relapse. It gives Watts a new mission in life: he’s going to find Mehserle and kill him.
That’s the basic idea behind Chasing Mehserle, the new play by 29-year-old poet and West Oakland native Chinaka Hodge. Watts and his mother Willie were introduced in Hodge’s breathtaking first play, Mirrors in Every Corner, produced in 2010 by Intersection for the Arts, Campo Santo, and the Living Word Project, the resident theater company of Youth Speaks. (The play was also published in the January 2011 issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine.) That same consortium reunites to produce Chasing Mehserle, which will have its world premiere at Intersection before moving on to Z Space for one weekend at the end of May.
It’s not necessary to know Mirrors in order to appreciate Mehserle; there are occasional references to the now-absent relatives that peopled the previous play, but you’re told everything you need to know about Watts in the here and now. That’s not to say that either the play or the character of Watts actually makes sense. The idea that a guy who never leaves the house is going to hunt Mehserle down is just plain silly, and actor Michael Wayne Turner III widens his eyes with a cartoonish crazy expression whenever he, as Watts, talks about his plans. The best plan he can come up with is to go to a farmer’s market in Marin, where Mehserle grew up, and ask around because maybe somebody knows something. (What’s more, how believable is it that a guy who never ventures outdoors is actually allowed to drive there.)
Though the strategy makes Watts seem none too bright, it does provide an opportunity for a variety of voices to weigh in on the incident, as Watts interviews everybody he runs into in search of clues. An omnipresent four-person chorus dressed (by costumer Courtney Flores) in identical street clothes fills in the world outside Watts’ window that he has to brave for the first time in years.
Much of the time the chorus seems curiously underutilized in the staging by directors Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Sean San Jose. From time to time they all do synchronized abstract movements that are often hard to interpret and occasionally all too clear, as when they all put their hands behind their heads as if held at gunpoint. Most of them play a couple of roles: Tommy Shepherd is a flummoxed BART cop and a sentimental acquaintance of the Mehserles; Johnathan Williams is a sardonic grocery clerk and a blunt-smoking neighborhood youth; and Tristan Cunningham plays several eyewitnesses to the Oscar Grant shooting with chameleonlike versatility. Oddly, one of the chorus members, 18-year-old Isiah Thompson, is given no characters to play at all. Mostly the chorus stands around murmuring agreement and encouragement during monologues, and stands in for crowds on the rare occasion that Watts ventures out of the house.
Being both the central character and the fictional author of the play, Watts, in a unique form of breaking the fourth wall, explains to the audience that whenever possible he has black performers playing the characters. This is regardless of the race of the interviewee, so that “everybody fits the description” of the kind of person targeted by police. “Everyone. Except maybe a few people.”
After an introductory monologue, Watts turns over storytelling duties to rueful narrator Puck.
“His real name is Adam, but he got hit in the face at Iceland hella long ago,” says Watts while introducing the narrator.
Played sensitively by Danez Smith, Puck eloquently grapples with his identity as a self-aware fictional character throughout the piece. Sometimes he objects to the fancy words Watts puts into his mouth and other times he uses his narration to not only describe Watts’ actions but to advise him as well, warning Watts to back off when he doesn’t have the sense to do it himself.
Although her role in the play is small, Halili Knox is formidably no-nonsense and movingly anguished as mother Willie, at least if you don’t think too much about the nonsense she’s apparently been putting up with from Watts for decades. Dan Wolf is priceless as Lyle, a well-meaning white activist trying to “kill white privilege” by imposing himself on Watts as his unwanted assistant. “Lyle is 19 or 34, who cares?” we’re told by way of introduction.
The remarkable thing about the play is how quickly it moves back and forth from eye-rollingly silly to powerfully eloquent and back again. Watts is a buffoon, but he’s also book-smart and passionate, and his central message about the American black man being an endangered species is heartfelt, well-said, and vital, and Hodge drives it home over and over again. It’s expressed gut-wrenchingly by Watts, by Willie, by Puck, by the witnesses of the shooting, and even by Oscar Grant himself.
“They will undo all my work in seconds,” Willie frets about her son, while speculating how good it must feel to kill someone you fear so much. “They will make you a holiday.”
Watts figures he may as well take a chance, because they’re going to kill him anyway. “Everyone is, mom. Clearly. Everyone is.”
A white interviewee played by Cunningham says the incident made him reexamine his own privilege in the most damning terms. “It isn’t ever going to be me.” Even the names of most of the characters have a particular significance that’s revealed in a chilling moment at the end of the first act
It’s a hard piece to get a handle on, because the plot and Watts’ master plan are maddeningly inane, but the way it brings issues of race in American society to the fore is poignant and soberingly effective; even the curtain call is handled in a powerfully defiant fashion. There’s a lot of humor in there too, but what’s really potent is the sense of the life-and-death stakes that the incident brings to the foreground — stakes that are not situational but are just the way things are in this country. So is Watts really the crazy one here, or is it the whole damn world?
Chasing Mehserle runs through May 24, 2014 at Intersection for the Arts and May 29-31 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit theintersection.org.