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"The Fear Is Still Very Real"
Adam L. Brinklow | Photo: Courtesy Intersection for the Arts | May 29, 2014
Six Oaklanders on race, violence, and Chinaka Hodge's new play, "Chasing Mehserle."
Our June issue tries to cover all things Oakland, but there's too much city to take on in a single magazine. One of the Oakland issues that didn't quite make it into the Oakland issue was the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, and the public outrage it sparked. But Chasing Mehserle, a new play by Oakland issue contributor Chinaka Hodge, tackles racial anxiety and identity in the Town better than anything.
The title turns out to be quite literal: The play's protagonist, Watts (played by Oakland actor Michael Wayne Turner) spent almost 20 years hiding in his apartment after the Rodney King verdict, too terrified to step outside. But a fight-or-flight response to the Grant shooting pushes him back into the world with revenge in mind, as he takes it upon himself to track down former BART PD officer Johannes Mehserle.
If anyone needed a reminder that Grant's death remains an exposed nerve more than five years after his death, the play has certainly provided it. When Chronicle critic Robert Hurwitt declared in his review, "We can't all just get along [...] as long as African American men continue to be killed and incarcerated in such shockingly high numbers," armchair critics in the comments section unleashed an arsenal of pent-up resentment about the ideas the show explores and even about Grant himself:
"Really dangerous to allow these types of shows fantasizing [about] killing a cop," wrote one. "If it was the other way around, it would be called racist." "I personally know the Mehserle family, they are kind family who have also suffered. This [play] perpetuates the victim mentality," said another. "Oscar Grant was a parolee who knew when he encountered the police that evening that he was going back to jail. If only he hadn't been fighting on the train and obeyed the lawful order of the police that fateful night," wrote a third.
Other comments praised the play and pushed back against the ire, but the size of the reaction (Chronicle theater reviews typically garner only a handful of site comments, if any) proves that emotions still run high long after New Year's Day, 2009. It's also ironic, since in one of the very first lines of the show Turner insists "This is not a play about Oscar Grant." Despite the title, it's not really about Mehserle either. It's about a city, and a problem with a thousand faces.
"What the show is really about is the fear that young black men carry around every day: fear of the street, fear of the system, fear of the courts, fear of the entire world," says Golda Sargento, an Oakland musician who lives across the street from Fruitvale station. "There's an elephant in the room that nobody talks about, and it's what that fear can do to a person and a family."
Mehserle is a handy symbol for an anxiety urban communities (a euphemism for "people of color," Sargento points out) can't quite shake: that the system is designed to persecute them. And Grant is an easy template for peoples' fear that they, too, will end up a victim, sooner rather than later. "This thing hit people of color hard," says Britney Frazier, an Oakland actor who is not a part of this production. "For mothers who have sons, the fear is still very real." While there has been art about Oscar Grant—most notably Fruitvale Station—few projects have used Grant's name as a springboard onto the back of that elephant.
Robert Henry Johnson, a dancer in Oakland, thinks the show is less about Grant and more about Hodge's—and Oakland's—desire to be heard. "I couldn't believe I was watching something this unapologetically black. When you're black you're often criticized for speaking your mind. People say you're playing the race card, and you're seen as weak. Hodge speaks up and says we have every right to say these things. I don't usually like political pieces and I don't necessarily have to agree with everything she says, but I liked hearing her come out and say it."
Others see the play as a comment on Oakland, with Grant's name and death serving as simply the throughline. Despite sitting smack-dab in the middle of a constantly buzzing Bay Area arts scene, Oakland sees few high-profile stage works about its own streets. "People are coming into Oakland by the thousands right now, and it's easy to take the city for granted," says Ted Russell, a senior programs officer at the arts and education nonprofit Irvine Foundation, who moved to Oakland five years ago. "When you're new you tend to look at the things that are shiny and new, too. You forget that there's a whole fabric of relationships that were around before you got there. This show reminds people of that. Better than these New York Times stories about gentrification."
In Chasing Mehserle, Watts is a cartography nut who knows every street in the city despite never having been on most of them. An onstage chorus represent the comings and goings of various neighborhoods. The dialogue bristles with nicknames for certain streets, certain blocks, certain buildings. "It was great just to get to hear someone refer to North Oakland as North Pole," says Matt Werner, author of Oakland in Popular Memory. "There's a certain attitude, a certain chip on the shoulder that people here will recognize," adds Lukas Brekke-Miesner, an artist and teacher who took his high-school students to the show. "It takes a big, decisive incident like this to get people to pay attention to the rest of the place."
Of course, those angry about the play are part of the community too. If you look into the heart of Oakland you will find the same people who leave comments like: "If one completely ignores the concept of personal responsibility, one can almost buy into the concept [of this play]. Almost." That's also part of the fabric of the community. But the play's boosters contend that those are, perhaps, the people who most need to see it.
Chasing Mehserle just finished a run at Intersection for the Arts and immediately begins a new, limited engagement at Z Space tonight. The producers are making aims at a national tour. That would bring a piece of Oakland to the rest of the country, but in a way, this story might be out there already. "This could have been a play about Trayvon Martin. This could have been a play about Rodney King," says Werner. "That's the point: It could be anywhere. It just happened to be here."