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How Portland’s black community and police are sharing their stories through theater

Transcript

William Brangham: We began the show with the Eric Garner case and the firing of a New York City police officer, which became a flash point for larger issues involving law enforcement around the country.

Portland, Oregon, has had its own history with racial discrimination and tension with the police.

There's a new effort under way to address those issues.

Special correspondent Cat Wise reports on a theater company's attempt to change the city's racial ecology through the arts, so to speak.

It's part of our ongoing series on arts and culture, Canvas.

Cat Wise: On a recent morning, an old fire-station-turned-playhouse was packed with theatergoers. But this wasn't a typical theater crowd. It was a who's-who of Oregon law enforcement, police officers, FBI agents, district attorneys, and judges. They were joined by prominent community and civil rights leaders.

Kevin Jones: Thank you so much, all of you. I'm a little overwhelmed just by -- just looking out and seeing who is in the room.

Cat Wise: Kevin Jones and his wife, Lesli Mones, are the co-founders of The August Wilson Red Door Project, a Portland-based arts organization.

Kevin Jones: This is Bob or Robert Day, retired deputy chief of the Portland Police Bureau and our partner in crime.

Robert Day: We really believe that there is some opportunity here and some work to be done, both on behalf of the black community and on the criminal justice system.

Cat Wise: Over the last few years, the three have formed an unusual partnership to spark new conversations and ways of thinking about race relations in Portland. And they're using the stage to help bridge the divide.

Man: When you're talking about issues of race, you can't just say that we all go through the same thing, because we don't.

Man: Stopping you because you are black is against the law. Hey, profiling is against the law. And are you saying -- are you saying I'm breaking the law?

Cat Wise: The performance that day was a collection of first-person monologues from two different plays. One is called "Hands Up." It was written by African-American playwrights about their life experiences and being racially profiled by the police.

Man: They slammed me to the ground. One of the officers had his foot on the back of my neck. Another other officer pointed a gun to the back of my head and said, "Move one inch and I will blow your head off!"

Oh, I went into survival mode. I tried to convince them I was one of the good ones.

Cat Wise: The other play is called "Cop Out," and it too tells personal stories of police officers and the challenges they face at work and when they take off the uniform.

Man: I used to think that nothing about being a cop would shake me up. But when you arrive on scene and watch your partner pull an infant out of a microwave because his meth head father couldn't stop the kid from crying, your lens gets colored.

Cat Wise: We were there for the first time the monologues were performed together.

Lesli Mones: We had one, you know, story on one side, and one story on another, the police story and the story of people of color. And then we're like, well, this is really one story that needs to be connected.

It's where these stories intersect that is the -- I guess, for us, it's the greatest chance of finding truth.

Kevin Jones: We're not dividing the story into two sides, right, the good guys and bad guys. On both sides, we have a group of people who feel that their stories are not being told, that they're being vilified, that they're being shunned, that -- and nobody wants to really hear their story.

Cat Wise: But those stories are being heard, and they are powerful, poignant and at times painful.

"Hands Up" was originally commissioned in 2014 by The New Black Fest theater group in New York, following the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Man: I would like to start with a show of solidarity. If you would all please raise your arms straight up in the air.

Cat Wise: During a monologue called "How I Feel," the audience is asked to keep both hands raised during the entire performance.

Man: Hands up.

Men and Women: Don't shoot.

Man: Hands up.

Men and Women: Don't shoot.

Cat Wise: More than 12,000 in the region have seen "Hands Up" in the last few years. But the producers also wanted to tell the stories of police officers.

They contacted Deputy Chief Day, then head of the police training division, and asked for his help.

Kevin Jones: His voice quivered. And he said to us: "You could do that? Wow, that would be amazing."

Cat Wise: Playwrights from around the country, many of them black, interviewed officers and wrote monologues about their experiences. They also spent a day going through police training.

Lesli Mones: They showed us what they face day to day. And it changed me. I was blown away by the kinds of instantaneous decisions they need to make. And I felt the vulnerability in what they do.

Woman: The only reason I carry a gun is for protection, primarily mine, sometimes yours, sometimes, in highly specific circumstances, like an active shooter, or -- no, that's about it.

Cat Wise: For 66-year-old Jones, some of the monologues hit close to home. He's had more than 100 encounters with law enforcement, ranging from being questioned to arrested. But he says his views of the police have evolved.

Kevin Jones: That was what was in the back of my mind when I said to Bob Day three years ago that I want to tell you your story, because, in your story, I'm going to find my story. I'm going to find the commonality.

And then you know we will become closer, and I will see you beyond your whiteness and you will see me beyond my blackness. And we will be two human beings.

Cat Wise: That newly forged human connection has had a big impact.

Robert Day: It's changed my life. My relationships are different. My world view is different.

Cat Wise: Day, who retired earlier this year, spent nearly three decades with the police bureau.

Robert Day: We're touching on sort of the third rail conversations of race and policing. And I think they are conversations that are happening in African-American families in homes and communities, and I know they're happening in police communities, because I have heard them, been a part of them, I have seen them.

But they're not happening publicly, and they're not happening generally across with each other, because of the sort of high-voltage nature of them. So, the theater allows us to put it all out there. We can speak what has been left unsaid.

Bryant Bentley: We get calls from newly settled white residents about suspicious behavior all the time. We get there and see it's an older black male, and he's just walking to his mailbox.

Cat Wise: Actor Bryant Bentley understands the complexities on both sides. He performs roles in "Hands Up" and "Cop Out." And in real life, he's worked in law enforcement and has also been racially profiled by police.

Bryant Bentley: What I want is really for everyone, put a mirror in your face, and have a self-check, do a self-checking, and really ask some serious questions.

And I know the hardest thing for someone, even a black person to ask yourself is, am I a racist?

Cat Wise: Those involved with the project believe what they are doing may be a model for tackling other issues that divide Americans. And they're hoping to perform the combined monologues around the country starting later this year.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Portland, Oregon.

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