Monday, August 31, 2009

Play focuses on police shooting of black teen with autism

The NY Times review:

The recent arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge, Mass., and the subsequent debate about racial profiling inevitably come to mind as you watch “The Rant” by Andrew Case, on stage at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In the play, when the police are summoned to a home by a 911 call, the results are tragic: A black teenager with autism is fatally shot on his front porch; a white sergeant is accused of the killing.

The central event in “The Rant” (pictured) begins with a call from a woman, Denise Reeves, saying there is a domestic dispute in her apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. “He’s going to kill me,” she screams into the receiver.

First to respond are the sergeant, James Clarke, a tough 26-year veteran with 17 complaints on his record, and Officer Charles Simmons, his black rookie sidekick. They arrive to find a crouching figure, later identified as Benjamin Reeves, age 16, huddled on the porch. As his mother, Denise, calls to him from the apartment to come back in, a volley of bullets shatters the evening calm.

What was the sergeant thinking as he stepped from his car? Denise, played with heartbreaking maternal fervor by MaConnia Chesser, recalls the white officer as a monster, “afraid and angry both,” ready to kill a black youth at the slightest provocation. Officer Simmons (Mark Hairston, in a strongly etched performance) has a different take on the situation: “When you answer a call, you don’t have the luxury. Everyone you see has the potential to kill you.”

Both are interviewed independently by a civilian complaints investigator named Lila Mahnaz, a young woman with enough of her own baggage to sink a battleship. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, she was raised in New Bedford, Mass., feeling culturally at odds with her American schoolmates. She describes herself as deeply suspicious of those “neighbors who grew up to be cops and firemen.” As written by Mr. Case, himself a former investigator for the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York, and played with unflagging intensity by Rahaleh Nassri, Lila Mahnaz is biased against the police at the outset.

The fourth angry voice in this cacophonous quartet is that of Alexander Stern, a reporter played by Bob Senkewicz. Desperate to land a Page 1 scoop, he badgers Lila to turn over her interview tapes, causing her identity to be leaked by a police newsletter called The N.Y.P.D. Rant. Later, in a chillingly delivered sardonic monologue, the reporter contrasts a black newspaper’s handling of the sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant with its treatment of the Duke lacrosse players who were similarly accused. He concludes, “We’ll never know the truth.”

Jesse Ontiveros’s fine direction of “The Rant,” which is part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program, almost keeps us from noticing Mr. Case’s overwriting of many scenes. But while the author’s passion is undeniable, giving “The Rant” its dramatic power, the piece never goes beyond the polemical. Characters are stereotyped, providing few surprises; nothing changes in the course of the drama. Come to think of it, sadly, maybe that is an accurate reflection of the real world.