9-1-1 What’s Your Emergency? The Verdict by Jovelyn D. Richards at La Peña Cultural Center, Berkeley, CA
For over 25 years, writer and director Jovelyn D. Richards has been active in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond as an artist, performer, and educator, supporting marginalized communities and focusing her artistic and advocacy work on the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and LGBTQ oppressions. Currently a resident artist at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California, Richards presented her most recent work — the theater piece 9-1-1 What’s Your Emergency? The Verdict — in a provocative and urgent performance brought to life by a cast of local Bay Area artists.
9-1-1 What’s Your Emergency? is a powerful and timely reflection on violence and discrimination against people of color, and on the difficulty – and often tragic inability — of white people to effectively address, question, and disrupt their own internalized biases and racism. This lack of understanding from white people often has fatal consequences on the lives and mental and physical wellbeing of marginalized individuals, who have been subjected to centuries-long institutionalized systems of oppression.
On opening night, Natalia Neira Retamal – co-director of La Peña together with Bianca Torres – introduced the play as an interactive experience in which the audience’s own self-analysis and questioning of individual responsibility would be intrinsic to the performance itself: “We are gathered here tonight, from all different races and cultures, because we want things to change… This is a conversation that needs to be happening and it will take us towards the right direction, no matter how long that will take.”
Richards’ work had its world premiere as a one-act play at La Peña Cultural Center in September 2018. In this updated 2019 installment, the director added a second act – The Verdict. The current two-act piece is structured as an imagined trial: the people of the State of California vs. “BBQ Becky” and “Permit Patty.” Those were the nicknames given to the two white women who harassed and eventually called 911 on people of color engaged in everyday activities. In April 2018, the woman dubbed as “BBQ Becky” was captured on camera calling the police on two black men and their friends and family for using a charcoal grill during a picnic at Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA; a few months later, in June 2018, “Permit Patty” confronted an 8-year-old black girl for selling water without a permit in San Francisco, eventually calling the police (also captured on video).
The first act of the play takes place in a courtroom in California. In the second act, the audience enters the protagonists’ living rooms, witnessing the private lives of the attorneys and their clients. Judge Murdock (portrayed brilliantly by Roberta Murdock) presiding over the trial, immediately set the tone: in her courtroom, both US law and indigenous laws would be upheld and honored. Indigenous law was present in the shape of singing, storytelling, and other forms of testimony, resilience, and resistance that would elsewhere be deemed as not acceptable evidence. “This is a courtroom of facts!”, yells the white defense attorney (a convincing Bob Lane) – his objections promptly overruled by Judge Murdock.
In order to win their case, the State prosecutors provide evidence of the pervasive and centuries-long racial biases against people of color — through references to the history of the civil rights movement and indigenous resistance; through calling attention to the murders of black women and men in the US at the hands of police officers; and through the witnesses’ own intimate stories of racial discrimination. The prosecutors’ main line of argument relied on simple questions with profound repercussions: what is an emergency? What represents a life-endangering situation? Sheltered by a system of privilege from which they benefit and in which they actively participate, individuals such as “BBQ Becky” and “Permit Patty” call 911 on black and brown people because they can, not because they are facing a threat.
This reasoning is echoed later in the words of Dr. Colin (Colin Hamilton), a white man working as a psychologist and a diversity expert and consultant to major corporations. He enters the trial as a witness for the defense but finds himself in the middle of a crisis of conscience. He finally admits to his own racial bias – and to that of the defendants. When, in Act 2, his wife (Madeline Tasquin), suspecting an affair, questions him about his new habits — going for aimless night rides and long runs — he succinctly explains: “I’ve been driving late at night because I can.” He continues explaining that he is aware that, as a white man, he is able to run alone and ride around at night without ever being questioned by the police or by neighbors. That is a privilege that’s not granted to black and brown people, something brought to light in the mesmerizing poetic testimony of Mariana Santos (a superb Jazmin Mora): her neighbor, suspecting a car break-in, called the police on her husband who, in his night robe, was simply standing next to his own car parked in front his own house.
Dr. Colin attempts, in his own words, “to unpack the legacy of white privilege.” That’s not an easy task when coupled with the pervasiveness of white fragility, another concept prominently explored in the play. First brought forth by sociologist Robin DiAngelo and analyzed in depth in her book-length study White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism (2018), this concept refers to the sense of defensiveness that white people experience when confronted with racial issues, especially their own internalized racism or institutionalized racism. By re-centering the conversation on their own hurt feelings, white people – especially liberal, progressive ones – end up focusing on and caring more about their own being offended rather than on racism itself and on acknowledging their own racist biases.
Ultimately, the characters of BBQ Becky and Permit Patty fail to acknowledge their own racial biases while, at the same time, they seem able to recognize discrimination and aggression when directed at them, such as fatphobic insults and death threats that they receive by mostly other white people. The burden of having to address and disentangle the pervasiveness of white privilege and white fragility falls once again on the shoulders of the people of color, who tell their own stories and shed light on how even the most liberal individuals can remain in denial about their own internalized biases. “I hum to comfort myself,” Dr. Elizabeth Perling (a phenomenal Nekia Wright) explains, as she clarifies that a court of law represents an oppressive space for people of color and marginalized communities.
If the play brought to light these urgent socio-political issues, the Q&A with the director and actors that followed was even more revealing in terms of the collective and individual work undertaken by the performers. Richards explained that, in rehearsals, she aimed to create a safe space in order to address such complex issues – a space, in her own words, “to know each other and trust each other, and to discuss the impact of the work itself on us.” The amount of care and warmth that she put into allowing a transformative dialogue to take place was highlighted by several of the actors. This was crucial in addressing topics which can shake one’s own sense of identity: “There were several times,” Richards continued, “in which, just rehearsing the lines brought up challenges for some of the actors. So we had an opportunity before each rehearsal to talk to one another, spend time with one another, we always ate together – that was an important part of indigenous practices. I tried to be the facilitator and create a home for everybody.”
9-1-1 What’s Your Emergency? The Verdict was presented at La Peña Cultural Center on April 27 and 28, with support from CA$H Theater, SURJ, and Zellerbach Family Foundation.
Written and Directed by Jovelyn D. Richards
Angeli Fitch as Prosecutor 1
Cheryl Games as Defense Attorney 2
Colin Hamilton as Dr. Colin
Mary-June La as Yu Li
Bob Lane as Defense Attorney 1
Jazmin Mora as Mariana Santos
Roberta Murdock as Judge Murdock
Chris Posadas as Prosecutor Michael Ferrer
Madeline Tasquin as Wife of Dr. Colin
Elizabeth Vermillion as Permit Patty
Vivian White as BBQ Becky
Nekia Wright as Dr. Elizabeth Perling
Marina Romani (PhD, UC Berkeley) is a queer performer of Western classical music and Afro-Puerto Rican music, as well as a film and music researcher, educator, and translator. She holds academic and advising positions at UC Berkeley: she is a lecturer in the Department of Italian Studies and an academic specialist at the Berkeley International Study Program within the Department of Sociology. She is also a music and culture critic, and serves as a contributing writer for the San Francisco Opera. She has presented her original research in Europe and in the US (Yale, NYU, UCLA, USC, King’s College London, among others). As a member of performance and education ensemble Aguacero and of son jarocho group DíaPa’Son, Marina has performed extensively as a solo singer and instrumentalist at La Peña Cultural Center, CubaCaribe, Brava Theater, Stanford University, Dance Mission Theater, among others. A native of a tiny rural village in Abruzzo, Italy, Marina resides between the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern Europe.
For more information, visit her website.
Marina Romany’s headshot by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
Other photos in article by Marina Romani.