New York Times: ‘The Bitter Game’ Brings Black Lives Matter to the Fore

Publication date: 
January 8, 2017
Author: 
Ben Brantley
They are instructions to commit to memory, essential tools in a young man’s defense system: Keep your head up. Keep your eyes forward. Keep your ego down.
 
The audience for “The Bitter Game” — Keith A. Wallace’s high-impact performance piece at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival — is asked to repeat these directions again and again. They are, after all, words that might make the difference between living and dying.
 
Mr. Wallace, at this point, has assumed the tough-loving persona of Pam, an African-American mother in North Philadelphia, who is laying down for her son the rules for surviving an encounter with the police. His name is Jamel, and Mr. Wallace portrays him, too.
 
Jamel is a lively, smart-mouthed boy, who has been caught by mom playing with a gun. It’s only a toy gun, but his mother doesn’t want anything like it in her house. That’s when she decides it’s the moment to deliver an essential life lesson, which she couches in the terms of basketball, Jamel’s sport of choice.
 
“Baby,” she tells him, when he starts to cry, “you’ve got to see the game like it is.”
 
Within the course of an hour, we follow Jamel from childhood to young adulthood to the point when he is required to act on Pam’s mantra, the one that begins, “Keep your head up.” By that time, Mr. Wallace has used his disarming conversational charm to make sure we identify with Jamel. The tension of being in his skin is pretty close to unbearable.
 
A response to the shootings of African-Americans by police officers that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, “The Bitter Game” deals with a syndrome that has been copiously reported, analyzed and deplored. But Mr. Wallace, and his director (and co-creator) Deborah Stein, give the subject an unignorable visceral immediacy.
 
That you can predict where “The Bitter Game” is going doesn’t diminish its ability to unsettle. Performed as an interactive exercise that allows no one to maintain a distance, the show is a sharp reminder of the persuasive powers of live theater.
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