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New One-Man Show Examines The Value Of Black Lives In America

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Keith A. Wallace. (Photo via Facebook)
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"The Bitter Game," a one-man show written and performed by playwright-actor Keith A. Wallace, won rave reviews earlier this month at New York City's Under The Radar Festival—a showcase of nascent talent in live theater. The New York Times, in its glowing assessment, said that the performance allowed "no one to maintain a distance" and served as "a sharp reminder of the persuasive powers of live theater." "The Bitter Game" will make its L.A. debut this weekend with two shows at the Skirball Cultural Center.

As an audience, we imagine that we're standing on the blacktop of a basketball court. A sense of immediacy envelopes us as Wallace breaks the fourth wall, telling us to recite the mantra, "Keep your head up. Keep your eyes forward. Keep your ego down."

And it's in these words that we get the crux of "The Bitter Game," a meditation on what it means to be a black man in present-day America. Those words come as advice from a black woman named Pam, supplied to her brash and strong-willed son, Jamel (Wallace plays both characters). Pam's decree isn't just some fanciful maxim; they're concrete instructions on what Jamel should do if he ever encounters the police. It goes without saying that, as Jamel grows up over the course of the play, he finds himself in the exact scenario that his mother had warned him about. Keep your head up. Keep your eyes forward. Keep your ego down.

Certainly, the play is informed by the troubling spate of fatal (and documented) police shootings that involve black men across the country. While it addresses a problem of enormous magnitude, "The Bitter Game" also refrains from offering answers. As Wallace tells LAist, he's not taking the role of a preacher or teacher as he performs. He feels that his purpose, rather, is to document and assess the situation with the clear and steadfast eye of an artist.

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"Nina Simone said once that she feels that it's the artist's job to 'reflect the times,' and that's what I feel like I have the chance to do with this work," Wallace told LAist via email. He added that, "Often times in post-show discussions people will ask me what they should do, what next step should they take? I usually respond by telling them I can't answer that question for them."

As the play progresses we get a feel for Jamel. Wallace relates to us his innermost thoughts, and we get a sense of how he operates. By doing this, Wallace touches on one of the prevailing problems in how we discuss the shooting cases; as we talk about the big picture issue of police brutality and racial injustice, victims like Michael Brown and Philando Castile become symbols in the narrative. Which is to say that we lose sight of them as individuals. "While I do believe that sharing content to increase visibility and to raise awareness around this issue is important, it also desensitizes and stupefies us in a way," said Wallace. "When a black person is murdered by police, and their name, their life and their entire existence is reduced to a hashtag or a soundbite on the news, it's easy for us to disengage."

Wallace's aim, then, is to bring us so close to Jamel that he almost becomes undefinable; too large to contain as an avatar of the subject matter. "We become a part of his world essentially, and when his life is altered by this epidemic we feel it too. We're complicit in the action of it and we can't disavow ourselves from it," said Wallace.

Among the many interesting aspects of "The Bitter Game" is that, while it follows a specific structure (the play is sliced into five acts, mimicking the four quarters of a basketball game, followed by an overtime), it's also a living, breathing thing. Wallace notes that no two audiences have ever experienced the same play. This is, in part, due to the candid nature of the performance—nothing this intimate can be replicated as a carbon copy. But it also has to do with Wallace's desire to evolve the performance, and have it reflect his growing knowledge of the subject matter. Wallace said that, in developing the performance, he's studied on the topics of critical race theory, the prison industrial complex, and post-traumatic slave syndrome, among other things. He says that the amorphous nature of the play is necessary to create "an immediacy that must be maintained."

The play will be performed at the Skirball Cultural Center on Friday and Saturday. Friday's performance will be followed by an open discussion where artist and educator Khanisha Foster will lead the audience in a reflection. Andrew Horwitz (Skirball Director of Programs) will lead a panel discussion featuring Shamell Bell (one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles) and Jody D. Armour (Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at USC) following Saturday's performance.

The Skirball Cultural Center is at 2701 N Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles, (310) 440-4500. "The Bitter Game" will be performed on Jan 27 at 8 p.m., and on Jan 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here.