Almost a decade ago I was involved in a project at Intersections that was commissioned by the Mayor’s office in Memphis, TN. The idea was to develop a performance-based community engagement initiative to improve relations between the police and the people they serve. Over an eight-month period, law enforcement personnel and community members engaged in multiple conversations to seek deeper understanding of the issues behind the city’s struggle with street violence and—concurrent with the nation’s struggle at the time (Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner)—with incidents of police violence across the nation.
This project resulted in a play, Uniform Justice, written and directed by Intersections’ staff member Chuk Obasi and employing Memphis-based performers. The play was presented several times in the city and subsequently performed in the New York metropolitan area where it accomplished the unique feat of finding favor both among police and community activists.
Violence in Memphis at the hands of police was brought into focus again with the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers.
I had the privilege this week to sit down with two principals in this project—Chuk Obasi and Fred Johnson who wrote the music and served as assistant director. I wondered how they felt about the events surrounding the death of Tyre Nichols, given their unique perspective from working intensely with both law enforcement personnel and community leaders in that same city almost ten years ago. We recorded our discussion, and you can see the entire conversation here.
I was struck by their reflections as they continued to voice optimism, even in light of the recent tragedy. Chuk allowed that recent events might imply that no progress has been made in terms of community/police relations. “That’s a cycle that’s hard to break,” he said, and he acknowledged that racism is tied to these events, not so much on an individual basis but “from a more systemic place.”
Fred lamented, “somehow, the chain (of trust) was broken. It’s easy for a system of power to get out of control.” Uniform Justice is about human behavior and decision-making and explores how we react to situations where there is an imbalance of power. In the play, the lack of trust on both sides leads to a tragic end. An all-Black cast depicted the psychic trauma of policing (or being policed by) the same people with whom you grew up, as is often the case in Memphis. Chuk recounted, empathizing with the characters in the play, “We used to eat in the cafeteria together and now you’re patting me down?”
Fred added, “What we realized in our dialogue with both the police and the community, was that the real work happens every day, building trust and alliances when there is no conflict so that when conflict arises, there is common ground.”
Both Fred and Chuk are artists—Fred is a world-class musician and Chuk is a multi-talented writer, director and dancer. Both agree that the arts is a powerful vehicle in making for transformational change in a community. Chuk said, “when we create theatre, we create characters who take their masks off. When we see ourselves in those characters, it is visceral. Maybe I’m going to call myself out because I see a part of myself in those unmasked characters.”
Regarding the recent events in Memphis, Fred shared that we live in a time when trust and truth and honor don’t matter like they once did. If respect and dignity slip away, he says, “it’s easier to ‘turn your sensors off’ and care less. There’s a huge responsibility, both among police officers and community members, in managing interpersonal situations. Elements of fear or anger can easily well up. How we react to a potentially volatile situation is critical. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey, a never-ending process.”
As we concluded our conversation, Chuk reflected, “you wonder how long the impact lingered. But during Uniform Justice, there was a tangible impact in seeing the humanity in each other, leading with love instead of fear. The people around us believed that and the difference was felt. Let’s let what happened to Tyre Nichols sink in. Let’s be real with ourselves and ask, ‘what would I do in that situation’”?
Fred’s final words were, “My hope is that Americans might see what is happening and ask themselves, ‘what can we do to inspire decision-makers in our communities so change is not an isolated thing.’”