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Calling The Bitter Game a solo performance is a bit of a misnomer. Throughout this compelling play, “actorvist” Keith A. Wallace is in direct conversation with theatergoers — improvisational shit-talking, he calls it — to inspire radical empathy about how police violence traumatizes African Americans in communities across the country. First performed on a San Diego basketball court as part of the LaHoya Playhouse’s immersive theater festival, Wallace and director Deborah Stein bring the show to the Public this week for the Under the Radar Festival. The Voice spoke with Wallace via phone about his work.
The Village Voice: The press materials note that your performance incorporates verse, prose, and “shit-talkin”. How did you blend form and style for this show?
Keith A. Wallace: When we were first conceiving this project, my director, Deborah Stein, walked me through a really interesting process to create meaningful, immersive theater. The play blends different writing and narrative modes: first person, transcripts of improvisation, spoken-word poetry. And, the narrative form of the play is completely interactive. 70% of my time is spent in direct conversations with the audience. This gives me the freedom to feel where the audience is at, to gauge what kind of group this is, and adjust each time.
When we originally performed the work in October 2015 it was staged outdoors on a basketball court, which allowed us to integrate promenade-style theater — where the audience is traveling with me — and that afforded a different kind of immersive quality. Now that we’re bringing it to the Under the Radar festival, we’re met with different set of fun challenges, cooking up ideas for how we can maintain that immersive quality in a theater space with fixed audience seating and a New York audience that expects a very particular kind of experience.
How has Black Lives Matter impacted the development?
Since the play head-on addresses the epidemic of police violence in this country, a lot of people have been dubbing it a Black Lives Matter play by association. But it’s not specifically a BLM play, since I haven’t aligned myself directly with movement’s leaders as pertains to this piece of theater. I think the BLM movement addresses so much more than just the issue of excessive police force; there are many other racial injustices that the movement is also tackling.
The Bitter Game is semi-autobiographical, in that I pull from my experiences growing up in inner city in Philly, which mirrors the experiences of many people of color growing up in inner cities across the country. I’ve built a composite character not only specific to me but that represents a larger whole. Black Lives Matter, which is such a powerful and forceful movement, has impacted this play by making it even more of a living document: because of this movement I’m able to pull from the news to incorporate what’s going on [into new iterations of the play]. From one city to the next, the play changes. No two audiences experience the same play, because it’s constantly evolving as this issue keeps presenting itself.
You call yourself an “actorvist.” What role do you see theater and arts playing in the struggle for racial and social justice?
Personally and professionally, all of the work I’m interested in creating and consuming focuses on issues of racial inequity and injustice. What I’m trying to do with this play is in part to create an opportunity for appealing to empathy. Exposing humanity and emotion in a way that we can all see ourselves reflected in a particular story, that makes us responsible in a whole new way.
We’ve worked very, very hard to make sure it’s not just a traditional theater piece that liberal theater folks can come to, be moved, and just walk away after — instead, we ask ourselves, how can we make each audience member recognize how they are complicit in this before they leave? How are we empowering them with resources, information, and strategies so that when they leave the play they feel equipped to go out and either start or continue their own personal fight for racial justice?
I hope that this play, and the work I continue to create in the same vein, will not only exit in the realm of theater, but also as a tool of sensitivity training for law enforcement, taken to new communities and schools where the need exists to address this issue.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing the show at the Public?
We have a couple of different audiences. One has some awareness of, connection to, or feelings about police violence but doesn’t understand it in a visceral way. We hope that part of the audience leaves with permission and courage to engage in difficult conversations about it this issue, to speak out, to get active.
Then there’s another audience who knows this issue in a lived, experiential way, it’s part of their lives. For them, the play speaks to the idea of racial recognition: “Yes! Somebody is finally saying it! I’m finally seeing my experience reflected!” Every time I do this show, someone will come up to me and say, “That just happened to me this morning.” Or, “I was driving last week, and…”
Ultimately we’re hoping people leave incited to action, to seek out opportunities to make change. I’d love audience members to talk to their neighbors even before they leave the theater; engage with someone about how they experienced the play. You would be surprised at how much information you can gain from talking to the people sitting in front of you or next to you.
The Bitter Game runs at the Public January 5-9.