By Christopher “Flood the Drummer®” Norris
4.6.17: Philadelphia – (Politics): Lying on the concrete in the summer of 2014, surrounded by gawkers who flocked to the staged scene ready to take photos rather than inquire of the reasoning for such a provocative and political display, Mr. Keith Wallace – a playwright and self-described actorvist born in North Philadelphia but who years ago moved to the West Coast to pursue higher education – in still motion then foreshadowed what has now become a unique, ever-evolving, ripped-from-the-headlines brand that synthesizes art and activism to focus almost exclusively as a mirror that reflects the goriness of police violence and the vulnerability of those who either experience it or who live in close proximity to it.
In 2014, the scene in Center City Philadelphia that attracted spectators, and which ultimately went viral, was a replica of the street in Ferguson, Missouri, where the late Mr. Michael Brown, after being shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer, laid for hours, uncovered, in a manner that signaled to the world that he was, as CNN’s Mr. Marc Lamont Hill put it, disposable.
“It felt egregious… like a public display of white supremacy,” said Mr. Wallace, who this week is back in his hometown of Philadelphia preparing to present this Friday and Saturday his one man show, ‘The Bitter Game,’ at the Painted Bride Theater (230 Vine Street) in Olde City. “It was infuriating… and it could’ve been anyone of us,” the bearded 30 year-old told me.
After Mr. Brown’s death, which mainstreamed the Black Lives Matter movement and forced a conversation in America about race, power, perception and privilege, Mr. Wallace began writing ‘The Bitter Game,’ a production whose name derives itself from the idea that Black people, even after informing themselves of the rules of survival, are likely still going to lose.
Anti-black racism, white privilege and oppression aren’t subject matters that Mr. Wallace aims to tackle in his work, but rather they are the social realities that inform the works themselves.
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When Mr. Wallace and I met up Tuesday afternoon – we’ve known each other roughly five years and I’ve interviewed the young playwright on-air at least twice – while he was on a break from rehearsal, he wore a shirt with the words Nigger and Nigga crossed out, leaving only the name Keith ultra-legible.
That single piece of clothing was reflective of one of the values of the Keith Wallace brand, which is to make others uncomfortable enough to start a conversation about the things that make Black Americans uneasy, anxious, afraid, and vulnerable.
But never before has the show gone up in Philadelphia, so this Friday and Saturday is a homecoming for the brilliant and humble thespian.
The show will “resonate differently in Philly,” said Mr. Wallace, who disclosed to me that in other parts of the country he’s been explaining Philly: the potholes, the grungy basketball courts – the first time ‘The Bitter Game’ was presented to an audience it took place on a California basketball court – and the ubiquitous block parties.
Much of the content within ‘The Bitter Game’ is made up of transcripts of improvisation; and the many characters Mr. Wallace portrays, speaks directly to the audience throughout the show.
“There’s no fourth wall,” the actorvist said.
Since Mr. Wallace first put pen to paper and drafted ‘The Bitter Game,’ both he and the production – which he describes as a living document that evolves in real-time in conjunction with the news stories profiling black death caused by police violence – has changed.
The play itself, of course, has become richer in content, and Mr. Wallace, both professionally and personally, is more unapologetic in his blackness, creativity and resistance.
Once thought of as foreign in his life’s context, the blending of art and activism for show is now Mr. Wallace’s calling card, and theaters are, indeed, calling him.
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NOTE: Following Friday evening’s presentation of ‘The Bitter Game,’ Mr. Christopher “Flood the Drummer” Norris, the co-host of ‘Pushback,’ a social justice podcast produced and distributed by Philadelphia Magazine and 900am-WURD, will moderate a panel discussion featuring local voices, including Mr. Asa Khalif of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania.
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