A haunting refrain of, "hold on," fills the theater. The lyrics, sung by a trio, warn the audience of what is to come: a story of strife, fear, choices and consequences.
The play is "Uniform Justice," written by New York playwright, Chukwuma Obasi, as part of a unique conflict resolution project, a partnership between Hattiloo Theatre and TE'A (Theater, Engagement & Action) at Intersections International and the Memphis Police Department's Community Outreach Program. It's sponsored by Memphis Gun Down, Mayor A C Wharton Jr.'s youth gun violence reduction initiative.
Hundreds of attendees of all ages, including community organizations and church groups, filled the house for each of the five, free shows held at Southwest Tennessee Community College's Union Avenue Campus theatre. Mayor Wharton attended one of the performances and spent time with the cast.
Hattiloo actors portrayed characters that would be easily recognizable on the streets of Memphis. The story begins with three young males on prom night as they discuss future plans. One is headed off to college as an athlete, another is content to stay in Memphis and become a rapper, and the third wants to stay home with the goal of making a difference.
The audience follows them as one college dream fizzles and a rap career wanes, all while a plan to become a Memphis Police Officer is realized. The script weaves rhythm and song with powerful messages about retaliatory violence and the life or death consequences that come with many choices.
The discussion about bypassing law enforcement to handle feuds transitioned from the stage into the theater seats as audience members, cast members and organizers participated in an open forum after each performance.
Obasi says those conversations were an important part of the play.
"A piece like this, which speaks directly to the community," he said, "warranted an opportunity for the entire audience to share this post-show kind of conversation that people like to have."
During the discussions, the participants brought up a number of topics and a few commonalities surfaced. While many cite a reluctance to report crimes due to the fear of retaliatory violence, others suggested that law enforcement cultivate relationships in their communities. The responses came as a welcomed surprise to Vieve Price, founding director of Insight Initiatives, who also facilitated the forums.
"I think the facilitated conversations were important in that they proved that people care, and that they want to engage and talk about these issues with each other," she said.
Law enforcement officers who attended also found the play to be an important conversation starter.
"The play really accurately shows what officers see on the street and these conversations need to continue to happen," said Wylie Green, a Shelby County Correctional Officer.
It's possible that these discussions can continue as organizers are exploring ways to extend the life of "Uniform Justice," taking the play to area schools, churches and community organizations.
While Price and Obasi return to New York, they are confident that "Uniform Justice" will continue to grow.
"One of the beauties, among many, of working with the Hattiloo Theatre was the commitment on their part to keep 'Uniform Justice' as a permanent piece in their repertoire," Price said.
The hope is that the anguish of a grandmother fighting to keep her grandson off the street, the frustration of a police officer trying to protect and serve and the dangerous choices made by desperate men wary of law enforcement will make a powerful impact.
(Special to The New Tri-State Defender from Kingdom Quality Communications.)