By Cherylyn Smith
Prepare for the genesis of “reality theater.” Unlike reality TV, this genre is not “dumbed down,” as demonstrated in the original play Us and Them by Deshad Cato. (The play is being presented through Aug. 6 by the Fresno Soap Co.) Instead, it raises our consciousness and offers us the insight we often lack in real-life situations. Ultimately, the audience is challenged to think, open up to experience and change the status quo.
The subject is the ongoing problem of police use of inordinate force against people of color. It mirrors the Black Lives Matter movement but has no qualms about taking all the characters’ perspectives into consideration. With all the news of repeated police killings, this play is revelatory and enlightening, as it examines the inner workings of institutionalized racism and how it robs us of our essential humanity.
The story unfolds around the experiences of Bree (Marlina Eckel), a young rookie police officer, who is mentored by Officer Waters (Rodolfo Robles-Cruz), a senior, more seasoned member of the force. Bree is going through a “rite of passage,” so to speak, as she encounters the dysfunctional relations between African-Americans and the police in the community she serves. However, her initiation does not lead to a new level of attainment but rather to a shocking realization that despite all her best intentions she cannot escape the snares of racially charged confrontation.
Waters, on the other hand, believes he knows it all. His racially biased rants claim Black people are “different,” that they are prone to criminal acts, and he insinuates that they lack intelligence. These and other stereotypes abound in Waters’ view of the people he claims to like and care about. Like the proverbial slave master of the past, he is adept at covering up it all to secure his position of authority. Although Bree challenges Waters’ racist comments directly, his own attitudes are not enough to diffuse the explosive racial tensions he faces.
Violence is pervasive in a community living in fear. Each character takes up some form of protection. A mother protects her son; the son protects his peers; the community protects each other in the presence of the police. In the opening scene, we witness the deep bond between a mother and son. As they look out for each other and their community, their concern for protection is imperative yet genuine.
At times, however, false images are fashioned into shields of protection. For example, there are parallels between Waters and the irascible high school student, Christian (John Rivas), who puts on a front of anger and revenge after being struck by Waters’ police car on his way to school. Christian submits to pressure from Waters at the scene, then puts on a show of defiance for his classmates later in the day, to protect his image.
Christian’s bravado, while typical of adolescent behavior, bears some similarity to the racist diatribe Waters hurls at Bree. Like classic Shakespearian figures, both characters are engaging in false projections of themselves that grow out of their own forced rhetoric. Both Waters and Christian are distorted and demeaned by their rambling and fake posturing. Christian is a teenager and likely to outgrow it, but Waters, like so many of the “bad cops,” suffers from fixation.
The truth is that these protective barriers, based on irrational fears, strengthen the wall between “us and them.” The play acknowledges that these defense mechanisms emerge out of systemic racism in our society with its history of racial tensions that can quickly polarize and spiral out of control. In the end, the audience is left to consider removing the barriers and to find ways to join in unity with those on the other side. It’s a short step out of the theater and into the “streets” where it’s all happening. Us and Them empowers us to take it on.
Cherylyn Smith is a part-time instructor at Fresno City College and an environmental activist with the Sierra Club and Fresnans Against Fracking. She has a boundless love of theater and books. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fresno Soap Co. is a theater that is not afraid to take on social justice themes. This theater company and the playwright Deshad Cato deserve recognition, praise and support for this and future offerings. Us and Them will run from July 14 to Aug. 6. For more information, contact the theater:
The Fresno Soap Company