By Setota Hailemariam

“Are you ready for the North Philly-est story ever told?” blared an announcer’s voice over the room’s speaker. The audience responded with cheerful enthusiasm, but honestly, no one was prepared for what they were about to witness.

They were there to see Keith A. Wallace’s one-man-show The Bitter Game Sept. 27 at MilkBoy ArtHouse, College Park’s restaurant/performance venue on Route 1.

The event, sponsored by The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, drew in a packed house, everyone there to witness the talents of Wallace as he created it, wrote it and performed in it himself.

When Wallace came out, clad in a hoodie, a backwards hat and toting a basketball, he immediately began to set the scene: a neighborhood block party in North Philly where the surroundings were rough but the community was strong. Using only his words, he painted a vivid picture of open fire hydrants, sneakers suspended from telephone lines and homemade ribs. It was a testament to Wallace’s acting abilities.

Then suddenly the scene shifted. “Second quarter,” the loudspeaker announced (instead of “second act”), and it became clear the play was framed as a basketball game. Now, Wallace played the part of a mother yelling at her son, and while the audience at first chuckled at the all-too-familiar mannerisms that reflected their own childhood, her tone grew somber, as she began to warn her son about the rules he must follow in order to survive while being black.

“If you aren’t on the court I don’t wanna see you run,” Wallace’s character warns. She also advises against wearing hoodies or headphones, and disobeying police. “Don’t ask why, always comply … it’s a bitter game, but play it like I taught you.”

The third and fourth “quarters” contained the most heartbreaking moments of the play without a doubt. The third showed Wallace, now playing the part of a college-age guy named Jamel Smith, driving at night, and driving safely at that, yet still getting pulled over.

He calls for a time-out, and asks the audience which ID he should hand the police officer. Though there was much audience participation throughout the show, the inclusion of this was different — it provided a learning experience.

Things tragically escalated, though, between Smith and the officer, and eventually he gets shot to death. This was one of the emotional highs of the show, as the room fell into darkness and all that was audible is a muffled cell phone recording of his last moments.

The feeling during the fourth quarter can be best described as sorrow — at Smith’s death and at the realization his was a fictional representation of the far too many very real deaths of black men by the hands of law enforcement.

This is Wallace’s goal. He passed out candles to the crowd, saying the names of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and other victims of police brutality with each one and having them repeat it. The most harrowing part of this was the sheer number of names — the list seemed to never end.

The play ended with a profound message: if the events upset you, don’t let your tears fall in vain. Wallace’s character charged the audience with calling out the flaws in the system, and doing their part to make sure these senseless deaths stop occurring. “If you talk about it,” he said, “be about it.”

The Bitter Game was an extremely necessary performance, that will hopefully impact its viewers and inspire them to not be complacent when tragedies occur, and instead call for change. With the creation of this piece, Wallace has made an important statement: being black in America shouldn’t be a bitter game, and it’s up to us to change the rules.

Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jim Carmody.

Setota Hailemariam is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at setotah98@gmail.com.

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