Review

'The Bitter Game': Personalizing the Black Lives Matter movement through theater

Driving home from the Skirball Cultural Center after being thrown to the ground by Keith A. Wallace’s powerful solo performance piece, “The Bitter Game,” I noticed that I was going over the speed limit while cruising along a particularly snaky stretch of Mulholland Drive.

I slowed down not out of concern for being stopped by the police but to prevent myself from crashing into some Hollywood mogul’s guesthouse. Wallace’s show, which was presented at the Skirball for two performances this weekend, helped me to understand my casual relationship to law enforcement as a luxury of being white. Driving while black, as the news keeps painfully reminding us, is a much more fraught experience.

“The Bitter Game,” which Wallace co-created with his director, Deborah Stein, brings the theatrical tool of emotional enlightenment to the issues that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. The work, which was originally commissioned by and produced as part of the 2015 Without Walls festival at La Jolla Playhouse, tells the story of Jamel, a young man whom Wallace portrayed first as a boy enjoying the neighborhood fun of a block party and later as a college student home to celebrate his mother’s 50th birthday.

Gun violence and police brutality figure in agonizingly expected ways, but what set this experience apart from the news reports of similar stories was the personal relationship Wallace established with the audience. Before the performance proper began, the audience was brought to a part of the gallery that had been set up as a recreation room. Old-school R&B was playing while adventurous theatergoers tested their jump-roping skills in a game of double Dutch. The vibe was relaxed and communal.

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The show itself took place in another gallery area that had been transformed into a makeshift performance space. (Andrew Horwitz, the Skirball’s director of programs, has curated a monthlong series of eclectic offerings for the Performance Lab, which runs through Feb. 25.) Wallace asked theatergoers to get up and stretch. He exhorted all sections of the audience to make some noise. Candy, the reward for the loudest cheers, was liberally distributed.

The raucous friendliness helped close the gap between audience and performer. Wallace, a multi-hyphenate artist, describes himself as an “actorvist,” and fusing a connection with the audience is clearly integral to his art.

References to basketball run throughout “The Bitter Game.” Indeed, the show is organized into four quarters with an “overtime” coda. A ball even gets tossed back and forth between Wallace and audience members — sometimes with unexpected force.

Jamel’s mother (whom Wallace effectively impersonated with minimal fuss) gives her son “the talk” after being disturbed by his boyish interest in guns. She teaches him how to behave if ever stopped by the police: head up, eyes forward, ego down. She presents these instructions as analogous to sporting rules. He may not like them, but if he doesn’t abide by them he’s out of competition. 

Nothing that was said in “The Bitter Game” hasn’t been heard elsewhere. But it’s how Wallace personalized the words and individualized the experiences that made the difference. What eventually happens to Jamel doesn’t happen to a stranger but to a charming, talented performer who could be a friend, neighbor, classmate or coworker. The rapport, intensified by Wallace’s conspiratorial smile, defeated detachment.

“The Bitter Game” was simple and direct — and all the more damning for being so. My drive home had me reflecting on something white people in the main don’t seem all that comfortable acknowledging: white privilege. That was a byproduct of a performance piece that was about the opposite of privilege, the deadly discrimination that makes the Black Lives Matter movement necessary in the first place.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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