by Claire Moodey · August 17, 2015
Rebecca Frank, Jonathan Louis Dent | Stephen Stocking
It always feels good to go the theater with a full house. It feels especially good to do so when you find yourself thinking that the play is doing something important. I had the pleasure of being in the audience for the opening performance of The Broken Record by Jonathan Louis Dent where this was just the case. Dent's play examines race and power as the incidents of police brutality against unarmed black people in America continue to pile. These terrible stories play on repeat like a broken record. Dent works at understanding these repetitions differently by playing a fictional but all too real story of the shooting of an unarmed, black college student by an NYPD officer at a bus stop on repeat. Jiva, played by Dent, is a homeless man who bears witness to the scene and miraculously has the power to freeze time, spin the record back, and try to change the course of history with the aid of Shadow (Rebecca S'manga Frank), a woman in white visible only to Jiva.
When Jiva stops the disc after Zachary is shot, Shadow appears and asks, “Do you know the secret of the lotus flower?” As Jiva relives this scene, trying each time to prevent the shooting, Dent's writing tries to parse the complexities of systemic racism, compassion, sympathy. The generosity with which Dent approaches each perspective within The Broken Record humanizes each perspective without letting anyone off the hook. Jiva's actions trying to prevent what seems inevitable reveal the depth at which police brutality and systemic racism affect behavior daily. Thoughtfulness and compassion seem to be the best tools Dent has found to expose and combat, but these still prove to be only the beginning.
While watching, I found myself in tears. I was nervous several times about how the production would handle the angelic woman, the white officer, the homeless, but was constantly impressed by the thoughtfulness and generosity of the writing, the careful direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian and the wonderful performances of the entire cast. While not solving any of these problems, The Broken Record very successfully brings visibility, questioning, and conversation to our daily encounters with systemic racism in an incredibly accessible performance. The production is elegant and simple - effectively and sparsely designed. Sound designer Nathan Leigh fleshes out the space, effectively aided by Lighting designer Jaime Martinez-Rivera. At the curtain call, Dent noted that the production is largely donating its profits to the Black Lives Matter Movement because as he declared to a packed house, “Black lives matter. They always have and they always will.” I highly recommend seeing this performance. Bring a friend. And talk about it.