The Court of Justice

SEP 11, 2017

Professor Timothy Patrick McCarthy in conversation with The Bitter Game creator & performer Keith A. Wallace on the role of art in a new era of activism. 

TIMOTHY PATRICK MCCARTHY: The first thing I always ask artists is about the origin story of the project: Where did this come from? What inspired you?

KEITH A. WALLACE: That word “inspiration” has a connotation of a stroke of genius. But really, the genesis of this piece came from my own personal pain, anger, and a deep sadness and disappointment about this issue of police violence, particularly what seems like a targeted attack against communities of color, impoverished communities, disenfranchised communities.

I was in graduate school when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson. And it obviously wasn’t the first instance of police violence, and it certainly wasn’t the last, but there was something about that particular instance that felt personal to me in a way that other instances hadn’t. I think it was the first time that I actually realized in a visceral way that this could be me, or any number of people that I know or care about.

And then there were the unnerving details of the case: he was in the process of fleeing when he was shot, his hands were up, he was unarmed. And he was left lying, uncovered, on the ground for four hours in the same community where he grew up, where people knew him and loved him. That felt like a really egregious public display of supremacy, like a modern-day public lynching. It was that realization that galvanized me to action.

So I decided to stage a silent performance art protest in LOVE Park in downtown Philly. It’s a very touristy area, with lots of foot traffic, so I knew it would get some people’s attention. I restaged Michael Brown’s murder scene, using my body. It was a silent protest. I lay there for about an hour. There were a couple of minutes where people were not sure what was going on. But after a while, people just ignored it and continued to get their photos with the statue. They kind of cropped me out, or stepped over me, walked around me. One of the friends who was with me snapped some photos and put them on social media, and then the whole thing went viral. The next day, I had phone calls and voicemails and emails from media folks wanting to talk. In that moment I was like, “Okay, there’s power here to do something with this art form that I love and the craft that I’ve been studying for so long. There’s something here to explore.”

Let me ask you a specific question about space. The A.R.T. folks probably don’t know—and there’s no reason you should know, either— that I’ve played basketball my entire life. Still do, slowly. There’s so much that happens on basketball courts—physically, performatively, politically, culturally, socially, even sexually. It’s a place of both connection and competition. So I’m struck by the choice to stage The Bitter Game on a basketball court. Was that a choice you made because you play ball and feel a particular connection to that location, or is there something about the hoop court that symbolizes something larger?

As my co-creator, Deborah Stein, and I were thinking about the most dynamic place to stage something like this, I began to think about how, in black culture and communities, block parties, street fairs—all things synonymous with black joy and revelry and celebration—

And safety—

And safety—are all synonymous with the basketball court. It represented the epicenter of black culture for me and my experience growing up: at the same time that all those revelatory and amazing things happen there, there are also undesirable things, like drug dealing, and violence, and shootings. And that juxtaposition encapsulated my experience growing up in North Philadelphia. At a moment of euphoric joy, a fight breaks out, or gunshots ring out. And it still happens today when I go home to visit. And that experience deserves to be represented, too, just like Chekhov.

Another thing we discussed was “the talk.” “The talk” is a coming-of-age conversation, or a basis. And this is nothing new, right? We have citizen surveillance of police murder now, but this is nothing new. You can date it back to civil rights in the Jim Crow South, and even before that. Imagery of violence against the black body is not something new.

In the early twentieth century, anti-lynching advocates flew flags that said: “A black man was lynched yesterday.” It was their version— one hundred years ago—of Facebook Live and Black Lives Matter. And people ignored it then.

So, how can we create a piece of art that by nature levels the playing field or makes it a little bit easier to grapple with difficult issues? We do that in The Bitter Game by creating an immersive experience where there’s no spectator- performer divide: you’re a part of this show. We try to build a sense of community amongst the audience members in this experience from the very beginning so that there is a true feeling of ownership and connectedness to thestory and its characters. And when it’s disrupted or when a tragedy sets in, then we all feel the impact, and we’re all responsible for it. The goal for this piece is not for people to leave feeling a sense of catharsis or emotional release. It’s asking, “How are we walking away? How are we arming the audience with information, language, and permission to go and engage with this issue?”

That’s a powerful way to look at your art and its impact. But I have a question for you about your comment that this is “an American issue.” On one level, you are absolutely right. Violence is in our DNA as a nation: violence against black and native lives, in particular, slavery and the colonization of indigenous lands. But the fact of the matter is that the particular kind of violence you’re exploring is not simply an “American” thing, right? It’s white people slaughtering black people, again. As you well know, a black audience member and a white audience member are not coming into the theater with the same “American” experience. But I don’t want to let A.R.T. audiences o the hook, especially in this Black Lives Matter movement moment. Folks are not coming into the theater with a uniform consciousness, and they’re not going to leave the theater in the same way, either in terms of the impact this piece has on them or in terms of their willingness to engage with the issues it raises. From your perspective—as a self-described “actor-vist” who is trying to have a real impact on diverse audiences—how do you keep all of this in place? How do you juggle competing identities, expectations, and experiences?

In creating this piece, I wanted to ask, “How can we get to the most human aspect of this?” We all know what grief is. We all know what a sense of loss is. We all know what it means to worry about somebody that we care about. We all know what it means to know that you’re in community with somebody or something. So I’m asking, how can we strip as much of the minutiae away to really get to the heart of what it is? If we can recreate that experience and rope people in early on, then we prime the space for interesting discoveries to happen. For the most part, the piece has resonated with different demographics. And it’s amazing to be able to have those different demographics of people occupy the same space at the same time.

Let me ask a question about empathy. One of the things I teach in my course “American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac” is that different artists employ a range of rhetorical strategies to connect with their audiences. One is shock value, another is symbolic action, and then there’s empathy—some representation or approximation of a different kind of life that gets people to see themselves in that experience, even if there’s not a lot in common. Empathy is hard in general, but it’s really hard— perhaps hardest—when it comes to race. White people and black people have a very hard time in the United States trying to empathize with one another, or understand what it is like to walk in each other’s shoes and live in each other’s skin. White people have a particularly di cult time with this. But we also know that meaningful contact, deep relationships in terms of equality or reciprocity, can help to overcome these difficulties and limitations. Most people don’t get there—that’s the reality of our history and lives. How much of a burden do you feel, as an artist who is also an activist, to get us there? In particular, how much do you have to work to make yourself known to white audiences? Is it the artist’s—any artist’s—burden to make the audience experience empathy?

That’s an interesting question, because this is my job. Part of my job is to examine the human condition, expose things, and deliberately create circumstances that will hopefully induce empathy. And particularly as the writer/creator of this piece, that burden is even greater. But it’s been a steep learning curve—because I thought I had to be a one-man band on this thing: creating the show, performing, and having dialogues about the show where people ask, “Well, what do I do? Where do I go?” And I felt the burden of having to answer that question. It wasn’t until further along in the process when a friend of mine said to me, “Relieve yourself of that burden. Because you’re doing your part now.” So the better response to that question is saying to that audience member, “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me what you’re going to do? Because this was my part, and I’m hoping my part inspired you to do something.” But I wrestle with that sense of huge responsibility.

And to answer your question about creating empathy along racial lines: it’s very easy to enter into this conversation, particularly about race, with “us versus them” or “theirs versus ours.” But something I’ve been striving to do with this piece, which I think it does semi- successfully, is create a sense of “our” very early on. If we can get to “our” sooner, then we’re primed to explore what empathy is.


One of the things we constantly hear in social justice and human rights work is that we want to put ourselves out of business—to not have to do this work anymore because the world is so humane and just. I think art is di erent, in part, because art represents all aspects of the human experience: past, present, future, and the things we can’t yet imagine. I started this interview by asking about this project’s origin story, but I want to end by asking you what you hope your art helps to create and imagine? In other words, what impact do you want The Bitter Game to have—here in Cambridge and throughout the country and world?

One of the beautifully tragic things for me about this show is that, as an actor, the opportunity to perform is what you strive for. And so for me, as the creator and performer of this piece, it’s that much sweeter of a deal, because I’m not only sharing something that I feel is important, but I’m sharing something that I wrote. So a lot of personal gain can come from that professionally. But the other side is that it feels weird sometimes to benefit in that way, because really the play exists because of the people and stories, my own and of headlines of actual victims, that I’ve built this show o of. People are dead. This play exists because people died tragically. In all truth, I wish I wasn’t working right now on this piece because that would mean that we wouldn’t need the conversation it starts. But since we do, I feel fortunate and happy to be in this position.

For me, the future involves contributing as much as possible to youth—and not just adolescents or preteens, but younger people who are affiliated with this movement because this is a new civil rights moment. If I can contribute in some way to the fuel that’s going to help push the agenda, particularly for millennials and for people who are really on the ground in a major way in this movement, I feel like that future looks bright. Will I live to see this issue eradicated? Probably not. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I take solace in knowing that somebody will pick up the mantle. The reason I can do this right now is because I’m standing on the shoulders of other people who were in this fight long before I was born. Rather than a remedy to police violence, the show becomes a contribution to a larger effort to eradicate this issue, and I’m OK with that for now.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy is Core Faculty and Director of Culture Change & Social Justice Initiatives and the Emerging Human Rights Leaders Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He is also the host and director of “A.R.T. of Human Rights,” an ongoing collaboration between the Carr Center and the A.R.T. 

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