Resisting at Theatre Nova: Irresistible and pulled from the headlines
ANN ARBOR, MICH.– Resisting. Merriam-Webster defines the word as: (1) exerting oneself so as to counteract or defeat, (2) withstanding the force or effect of something.
Michigan playwright David Wells’ new play, Resisting defines the word in context of racial biases that are deeply woven into the law enforcement and criminal justice systems – and American culture itself.
Resisting packs a powerful punch. It’s a polished script, perfectly executed, and punctuated with a platinum performance of Tayler Jones in the lead role.
The play has elements reminiscent of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award winning “Between the World and Me” and Reginald Rose’s courtroom drama “12 Angry Men,” both seminal works.
Resisting’s world premiere was Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 before a predominantly white audience of 50 people at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor. This 90-minute play will likely be staged for years to come to larger audiences – or, at least, should be.
If I were a high school civics teacher, Resisting would be a field trip.
There’s no homicide or burglary anchoring the action. Actually, no crime is committed at all. Even so, a young black woman, portrayed by Tayler Jones, is stopped in traffic with her hungry baby raises the ire of a white police officer when she appears to use her mobile phone to shoot video of an act of police brutality.
The officer seizes Tamika’s phone, smashes it on the roadway, pulls her from her vehicle and throws her against the hood. When she protests “But I didn’t do anything!” the officer slaps handcuffs on her wrists. He tells her she’s going to police headquarters and her baby’s going into Child Protective Services.
The best way for Tamika to navigate the world, and a situation like this, her father has taught her is to “be invisible.” Maintain a low profile. Be a model citizen.
Tamika has followed her father’s advice. She graduated high school and college. She dresses professionally and works as an accountant. She takes care of her business. Nevertheless she sees that she can’t fly under law enforcement’s radar forever. Her blackness won’t permit it.
Wells contrasts Tamika’s reality with that of her public defender, Lindsey, who is empathetically portrayed by Annie Dilworth. Both Tamika and Lindsey are competent 25 years olds, unmarried, idealistic, and have caring fathers they nurture in the absence of dead or dying mothers.
But the similarities stop there.
Lindsey is white, her family is wealthy, and her father’s social clout opens opportunities for her. Her race and socioeconomic status give her more choices and greater mobility. In short, she gets to “go where she can win.”
As attorney and client prepare for trial, both realize that – if they traded places – Lindsey would never have been arrested on trumped up charges. Nor would Lindsey have to work through the professional and familial fallout hat result from having had a brush with the law.
Resisting is about how to proceed in the presence of a stacked deck.
Strict, no-tolerance policing has made life safer in the low-income neighborhoods where minorities tend to reside, enhancing everyone’s quality of life, according to Tamika’s father.
Tamika argues it’s not fair that police are allowed to exercise discretion in enforcing the law in neighborhoods of higher economic status, while insisting those in poorer areas observe every jot and title of the law.
Resisting is directed by Billicia Charnelle Hines, director of the Black Theatre Program and assistant professor of theatre at Wayne State University in Detroit. Tayler Jones earned her bachelor of fine arts degree at Wayne State.
The male actors in this show deserve high praise for their versatility, as well as their craft. Will Bryson plays five roles in the play, and Patrick O’Lear plays three. Including the seething Officer O’Shea.
This production features fine work of set designer Forrest Hejkal, who expertly accomplishes scene changes by projecting video of police headquarters, courtrooms and neighborhoods on a neutral colored wall behind a simply decorated stage.
The show opens with slides showing a photo of black women accompanied with bare bones information: their name, a city and a year. Are these real women who, like Tamika, were victims of systemic racism? Those dots are not connected for the audience.
But this is a story that does well in continuing the terrific and valid work being done at Theatre Nova, which brings new work to life, and especially work that seems ripped from the national discourse these days.