Veteran playwright David Wells, whose play Irrational premiered at Theatre Nova last year, has another new project, Resisting, playing in the same space this month. Irrational was set in ancient Greece, but Resisting takes place now and is based on a true story.
Wells: The actual events took place in Baltimore in 2012 when a black woman pretended to film police abusing a young man. Filming police in a public place is not illegal, and yet she was arrested. A laundry list of charges was concocted, and she was offered a plea deal with probation. She declined to accept the deal and took the case to trial. The plot of the play is inspired by those real events, but I created original characters and relationships.
What prompted you to write this play?
Reading an article in Rolling Stone about “broken windows” policing (monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes, it is argued, helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes), which included a recap of this case from Baltimore, made me realize how little I was aware of the systemic racism in the criminal justice system that is actual policy. I figured if I was unaware of it, then a lot of people like me are probably unaware, too.
How did you research the story?
I consulted with attorneys who’d worked as public defenders in Michigan, Baltimore, and New York (the public defender I consulted with worked out of the Bronx in the early and mid-1990s when “broken windows” was being introduced). Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow was also a great resource. Finally, after I’d already written the play, I saw the documentary 13th, but it confirmed a number of the elements I tried to portray.
Authors often write about things they haven’t personally experienced. But to write about the black experience as a white man seems like a particularly daunting task. There may even be people who say, “What’s a white man doing writing a play like this?”
This was my biggest consideration and concern. I wrestled with it quite a bit before even starting the project. Can I tell this story? Should I tell this story? And if I do, who is the audience? Because I’m not going to presume to tell a black audience anything they don’t already know.
I simply tried to: 1) get the legal procedural details right; 2) imagine how I’d feel in that situation, because, really, what else can a writer do; and 3) get a whole lot of feedback.
To that end, we had a reading last spring in conjunction with the Wayne State Black Theatre Program and Black And Brown Theatre. After the reading, I asked the audience members and cast to hold nothing back— tell me everything I got wrong. They said I hadn’t gotten anything wrong, and, in fact, I could even go further than I had. I took that as confirmation to move forward with the play.
I also specifically hoped Billicia Hines would direct the production. (Billicia Hines is the director of the Black Theatre Program at Wayne State. She also directed Mr. Joy for Theatre Nova last season.) Having her feedback during development has been great. We’ve also been fortunate to have a couple readings with the cast, and I asked them, as well, to call me out on anything I’m getting wrong.
Black audience members I’ve spoken to were aware of the effects of the systemic racism the play explores, but not necessarily some of the actual police policy behind it. And I don’t think most white audiences fully understand how dense the systemic racism is within the criminal justice system. The play is a story about one woman’s journey through the criminal justice system, but it employs a number of perspectives, so I think the play is for everyone.
Resisting runs through November 19
The Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor
General Admission $20
Pay-what-you-can tickets available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading “PWYC Tickets.”
For more info, or to purchase tickets, visit TheatreNova.org