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Playwright Local’s ‘Objectively/Reasonable’ hits home in recalling 2014 deadly shooting of Tamir Rice

By Bob Abelman

Dontre Hamilton. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. Akai Gurley. Michael Brown Jr.

Do you recognize these names? If not, you’ve stumbled onto the reason behind “Objectively/Reasonable,” a dramatic work receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Local.

These names represent just a few of the unarmed black men in America recently killed by white police officers. “Objectively/Reasonable” serves to call attention to these deaths and the Black Lives Matter movement by drawing focus to Cleveland and the fatal 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

Tamir became a sad statistic on a cold November afternoon under the gazebo of Cudell Recreation Center and will be forever linked to the phrase “objectively reasonable,” which has become the legal standard for justifiable force in local law enforcement. But will the things that made him unique and will the truly tragic circumstances of his demise be remembered?

Like Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” — a song about the 1999 New York police shooting death of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo — this play serves to keep Tamir in our thoughts.

And like Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” — a song most famously performed by Billie Holiday that was inspired by the 1930 mob lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Ind. — this play keeps the topic of racism in America a part of the national conversation.

Unlike these and other related works, however, “Objectively/Reasonable” is devised from actual reactions to and opinions about the shooting by anonymous neighbors, friends and community leaders. These have been compiled and turned into dramatic monologues by local playwrights David Todd, Mike Geither, Tom Hayes, Lisa Langford and Michael Oatman.

These slice-of-life monologues are strung together to form a narrative of the Tamir Rice tragedy and come in varying shades of anger and disillusionment that do not shy away from ardent social commentary. Under Terrence Spivey’s direction, they pulsate with purpose and artistic integrity.

Each monologue is delivered by one of 10 actors on a simple, dramatically lit platform stage designed by Margaret Peebles, while the other actors are frozen in tableau or engaged in theatrically exaggerated activity that offers context for the commentary and visual framing for the performance. A series of projected photographs, designed by A. Harris Brown, appear on a small screen to the right of the stage that helps establish a sense of time and place for each vignette.

The performers — Ashley Aquilla, Kaila Benford, India Burton, Samone Cummings, Ananias Dixon, Kali Hatten, Jameka Terri, Lashawn Little, Brenton Lyles and Nathan Tolliver — are fully engaged and very engaging, though some stumbling over lines on opening night managed to expose the fine-line artifice associated with a play dependent on turning transcripts into live theater.

For the most part, however, the realism that results from the transcribed nature of this play enhances the power of the words being spoken. This is particularly evident in the play’s final vignette, where the wonderful Ashley Aquilla delivers the tender and heartbreaking remembrances of Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria.

But the play is occasionally hamstrung by this quality as well. Despite the playwrights’ intervention and invention, some monologues reflect the verbatim verbosity of their sources and brutal honesty is occasionally paired with a lack of theatrical eloquence. And, by clocking in at 90 minutes, the play is often repetitive and tends to drive home a point by driving it into the ground.

Despite its warts, a great good emerges from this production. The story of Tamir Rice’s life, the tragedy of his death, and what they say about the state of the union will survive, while the names of other victims and the gazebo at Cudell Recreation Center will sadly fade from memory. CV

On stage:

WHAT: “Objectively/Reasonable”

WHERE: Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Sept. 4

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$15. Call 216-302-8856 or go to playwrightslocal.org


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 19, 2016.

LEAD PHOTO: Ashley Aquilla as Samaria Rice. PHOTO | Tom Kondilas