by Melanie N. Lee · August 20, 2015
We desperately need Uniform Justice. With Black Lives Matter, with many deaths of unarmed citizens at police hands, with increasing unrest all around, we need a play to tell us to breathe, calm down, and listen.
Written and directed by Chuk Obasi, with Fariddudin F. Johnson as Musical Director, Uniform Justice was commissioned by the Mayor’s office of Memphis, Tennessee during a time of overwhelming urban violence. Unlike NYC, Memphis cops grow up and live in the neighborhoods they police. The main issue here isn’t Black versus White, but Cops versus Community, and vice-versa, and if ever the twain can meet.
Standing, stamping, and circling, the all-Black cast sings for hope, then whispers and shouts: “This is my hood…This is my block…You’re in my house…This isn’t your street anymore!” Sirens blare. Two cops argue with, scuffle with, and arrest a young citizen. The cop Robert, rubbing his injured head, speaks up: “This is not a crime scene. It’s a conflict…a conflict between me and Jay.”
A young married police officer, Robert serves and protects while trying to keep his streetwise friends. Jay, who went to college for African-American studies, returns to his neighborhood, Orange Mound, and its street code of violent pride. His T-shirt, lined with Black heroes’ names, declares “BECAUSE OF THEM, WE CAN”. Robert recalls himself, Jay, and their friend Flip at prom night, “18 going on 18”. Jay asks, “What does the world mean to us?” Robert counters, “What do we mean to the world?” Convinced that he and his kind “don’t mean sh**” to the world, Jay advises Robert, “Make sure you do you. Don’t do them,” meaning the cops.
“And the years pass by,” the chorus sings. Evelyn Harlow throws out her son Odin, 18; he’s later found shot to death. Robert and his senior partner, Charlene “Charlie” Chapman, bemoan that a dozen witnesses—including Odin’s 14-year-old sister—won’t talk. The violence is so bad, “It’s spilling into the White neighborhoods now!” Robert declares. Meanwhile, Jay’s affair with a married woman sparks her husband’s hunt for revenge. Jay’s grandmother, Ms. Dixon, finds Jay’s hidden gun. Robert begs Jay to let him help. Pregnant Sylvia accuses Robert of placing his job above her. A traumatized Evelyn searches the streets for her dead son. Charlie’s father Lonnie, a retired cop, says, “Justice doesn’t look the same to everybody”; Odin’s bereaved sister “wants justice. She just doesn’t know how to get it.” Jay begs Flip for another gun…
Aundra Goodrum conveys Rob’s innocence, courage, and desire to help, while Donovan Christie captures Jay’s street ethic, indignation, and dread. Christopher Brown as Flip is agile, funny, and a great dancer. As the grieving Evelyn, Meredith Watson moved me to tears. Arthur Gregory Pugh exudes deep-voiced authority as retiree Lonnie and as a News Reporter who reveals key events. Rounding out the cast are Karen Eilbacher as tough-skinned Charlie (Marcela Cuadrado plays the role August 21), Christine Smith as feisty Ms. Dixon, and Linda Obasi as exasperated wife Sylvia. The few songs, sung well by the chorus, serve as transition and commentary.
Uniform Justice exposes people lecturing rather than listening, financing violence rather than art, clamming up rather than speaking up. The play deftly displays the characters’ motives and means, so that the audience experiences the understanding, compassion, insight, and awareness that this play is crying for. Uniform Justice, for many of us, could be a first step in addressing community responsibility for stopping crime, and police officers’ responsibility in understanding and respecting their fellow citizens. Highly recommended.