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Being black in America? Keith A. Wallace brings this 'Bitter Game' to life in one-man Skirball show

Life is a game and the objective is simple: to make it home at night, life intact. To survive.

But while some are born with  advantages — think  race or wealth — others have no assistance navigating the ups and downs that may come their way. The latter group must hope that natural genius and street smarts will be enough. Oftentimes it’s not. 

This is the premise of Keith A. Wallace’s “The Bitter Game,” coming to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday. The play is “equal parts cathartic, for me, and activism,” Wallace said. 

The play explores the experience of being black in America through the relationship of a young man and his mother. With its five acts staged as the four quarters and overtime of a basketball game, the show, performed by Wallace alone, comments on police violence and coping with trauma. 

“The Bitter Game” was developed for La Jolla Playhouse’s 2015 Without Walls festival, which encourages the creation of works to be performed outside of traditional theaters. Wallace, a graduate of Atlanta’s Morehouse College and UC San Diego’s MFA acting program, and Deborah Stein, the show’s co-creator and director, settled on UCSD’s basketball center. Two years later, the show has been staged in a number of intimate theater spaces where Wallace can create community between himself and the audience.

The show will be part of the Skirball’s inaugural Performance Lab, a season of dance, theater and multimedia events aimed at diverse storytelling. “The Bitter Game” is the first in five weeks of programming that includes works from playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, feminist theater company Split Britches, Manual Cinema shadow puppetry and UCLA choreographer-performer Lionel Popkin.

Fresh from a gig in Costa Mesa, The Times spoke with Wallace — wearing a black hoodie emblazoned with the names of black men killed by police in the shape of a hashtag and the words “No More Hashtags” — about creating and performing “The Bitter Game” and his hope for those who attend. 

What was your motivation for this play?

The murder of Michael Brown in 2014. That case felt personal to me in the way past ones did not, necessarily. I can’t explain why, but it just did. The thing that struck me to my core was that they left his body lying on the ground where he had been murdered, uncovered for four hours. It was a public display, in the way that public lynchings used to take place as a warning sign and display of power and supremacy over people, as if to say, “This is what will happen to you if you defy the powers that be.”

And all the mothers rendered childless from these situations who are thrust into the spotlight and not afforded the same opportunities to mourn and grieve in the same way other mothers are. From Mamie Till [mother of Emmett Till] to current day, there’s a cycle here repeating itself. 

The play expresses the idea of a shared experience among black people when it comes to interactions with the police. What have your personal experiences with law enforcement been like?

I’ve had my own experiences with police officers, none that have amounted to a tragic circumstance like the ones we see happening over and over in the news. But what remained true for me was that because of seeing the lack of justice in these cases and seeing police officers murder black people with impunity, I began to experience my own sense of trauma whenever I encountered a police officer or a police vehicle. There’s a psycho-physical reaction that we all experience. There is a vicarious trauma that ripples throughout not only the immediate community of the person that was murdered …  but I feel very connected in a visceral way.

I wanted to create a world and a life that is very specific so that we couldn’t disengage or disavow ourselves from the epidemic [of police shootings] because of the onslaught of it. The characters represent a specific story and experience, but it represents a larger whole. 

Why did you choose to liken this lived experience to that of a basketball game?

As I started to think of my experience growing up in north Philly, the basketball court became an important part because it was the epicenter of community activity. It was where block parties and festivals and tournaments came through and also where less than desirable things happened — shootings, killings, robberies, drug dealing. It was the juxtaposition of those two ideas for me that encapsulated my experience. Joy, celebration, revelry, community, but also devastation, despair, violence, drugs. 

And then there’s the idea of this thing that we experience as people of color, this dance we do. It’s like a game, and the game being one that’s kind of messed up.

Most of your audience is white, and you have said they probably don’t share your experiences with law enforcement. Yet the play is wholly referential of a black community, complete with an unapologetic use of a racial slur. How do you reconcile these two seemingly opposing facts?

I wrote this play knowing very specifically who the original audience would be: very much white, upper-middle class, wealthy, middle-aged to older. But with theater, people come of their own volition, and they pay. It draws a pretty diverse audience. I saw [“The Bitter Game”] as an opportunity to speak to at least two segments of people: one that does not understand this experience in a lived, visceral way, and another who, as soon as I drop that first [epithet] and play Frankie Beverly and Maze, they’re in their backyard. 

And both groups make for interesting conversations at the talk-backs that follow your shows. [Following the 8 p.m. Friday performance, artist-educator Khanisha Foster will lead the audience in a reflection. Following the 8 p.m. Saturday show, the Skirball’s Andrew Horwitz will moderate a panel discussion with Shamell Bell of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter and Jody D. Armour, a law professor at USC.] 

This play levels the playing field and gives the audience a jumping-off point. We can use this play to unpack some of the more awkward, uncomfortable, difficult things to talk about.

Near the end of the play, you instruct the audience to take out phones and record. What do you expect audiences to do with that recording?

I wanted to send them off with something tangible. My ultimate hope is that you use it as a bridging agent. If it’s a way to have a conversation with someone you know is anti this issue or putting it on social media to spread awareness or if it’s something you use for you to reinvigorate yourself in the fight for social justice. But do something with it, and that something is up to the individual. I’ve done my part by creating this play. 

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter (@TrevellAnderson) or email me: trevell.anderson@latimes.com

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