Sandra Bland is on the long list of young African Americans who have ended up dead at the hands of the law for no good reason.
A 28-year-old activist and administrator from Naperville, she relocated to Texas in the summer of 2015 for an administrative job at her alma mater, Prairie View A & M University. Soon after, she was stopped by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia for failure to signal a lane change. During the traffic stop, she was pulled from the car, forced to the ground, and arrested for assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was found hanging in her cell—and the circumstances of her death still are hotly debated.
Playwright korde arrington tuttle says that his “graveyard shift,” which is having its world premiere in Goodman's Owen Theatre after being partly developed during the theater's 2018 New Stages Festival, was “inspired” by Bland. But the 100 minute-or-so one act draws on her story so heavily that it might more accurately be called a “fictionalization.”
The play also doesn't do Bland any favors. For at least the first hour, before the crucial encounter, the scenes alternate between Bland stand-in Janelle (Aneisa J. Hicks) interacting with her boyfriend Kane (Debo Balogun) and the office of a trio of state troopers, Brian (Keith D. Gallagher), Trish (Lia D. Mortensen), and Elise (Rae Gray). When the big confrontation finally does come, it's staged with Janelle and Brian, dramatically lit, facing forward and shouting at each other rather than with any physical assault.
This spotlights how the situation escalated verbally but also reduces the tension and raises a number of questions. Yes, Brian was biased, let his emotions get the better of him and, as a professional, should have been trained to de-escalate such situations. And, yes, Janelle was right to be outraged, especially when Brian ordered her to stop smoking in her own car (which wasn't illegal), but it's also true that anyone, black, white, or purple, who gets into a heated argument with cop, traffic or otherwise, is acting as his/her own worst enemy.
Indeed, Janelle, as compellingly portrayed by Hicks and sensitively directed by Danya Taymor, is a strong, complicated woman inclined to make life hard for herself from the beginning. Her scenes with Balogun's most sympathetic Kane center on her career ambitions, specifically to leave Chicago for a better job. When she lands one at Prairie View A & M in Texas, where he lives, they both experience angst, though the reasons are different. They're constantly fighting and making up, though their playful moments suggest they love each other. Still, her prickliness makes him come across as the more devoted and patient one.
Meanwhile, in the troopers' office, we're treated to a lot of small talk and back stories for each of the characters. Trish, the no-nonsense boss, has no life beyond the job, is frustrated, and wistfully recalls a sort-of romantic incident from her past. Elise, a musician, wants to go to Nashville and start a career, but she's also having an affair with the married Brian and keeping a secret from him, even though she says she's loved him since she was 14. Brian, who admits that everyone thinks he's a “fuck up,” has been demoted for mishandling an incident, and he's trying to get used to the graveyard shift.
Perhaps to indicate their common humanity, tuttle provides lots of parallels between these two sets of characters, among them the different types of music they listen to and the fact that both Janelle and Elise want to leave their hometowns. Each character also gets at least one long monologue. They range from Brian's mostly expository address to a raccoon family he's rescuing from a tree to Janelle's philosophical prison soliloquy and Kane's impassioned speech after her death, though the fact that he's simultaneously brandishing a gun at the troopers doesn't fit, even if it's a sign of his desperation.
Also baffling is the rather surreal final scene with Kane surrounded by boxes and Brian reduced to pizza delivery guy. Janelle puts in an appearance, so there's a possibility that Kane is dead too, or maybe she's just in his memory. It's not clear, at least not to me.
Kristen Robinson's alley set design (with most of the audience on either side) has a big wall at one end that opens part way to reveal a blue sky. Furniture is moved around on the runway to indicate different locations, including Janelle's Chicago apartment, the Texas one she shares with Kane, the troopers' office, and the prison cell. Marcus Doshi's lighting design features a row of florescent bulbs down the center; when they're the only lights in use, the stage is distractingly dim. Montana Levi Blanco's costume design is mostly straightforward, except for Janelle's distinct sense of style. Richard Woodbury's original music and sound design are balanced and apropos.
While “graveyard shift” is powerful at times, the writing strikes me as self-indulgent. The monologues tend towards speechifying, and sections that are supposed to be poetic as often as not are ponderous. I also find Janelle to be annoyingly self-absorbed, which I suspect was not tuttle's intent. Still, that's a testament to Hicks' arresting portrayal. In fact, the fine acting all around is the main reason to see the show.