There’s a scene in playwright korde arrington tuttle’s “graveyard shift” that hits with such force it’s hard to watch. It comes late in the intermission-free world premiere drama at the Goodman Theatre where it earned a spot in the company’s regular season after a scaled-down but visceral reading in the theater’s 2018 New Stages Festival.
tuttle has the audience bearing witness to an interaction between Janelle (Aneisa J. Hicks), a 28-year-old, African American woman from Naperville, and Brian (Keith D. Gallagher), a white Prairie View, Texas state trooper who has pulled her over in Waller County, Texas. She knows her rights, but every time she attempts to claim them (Is she under arrest? If so, what is the charge?) Brian gets angrier.
You’ll want to cling to the hope that the rapidly escalating traffic stop won’t end with Janelle dead in an empty jail. No such hope exists because tuttle has pulled this scene directly from the transcript between the real-life Sandra Bland and Prairie View officer Brian Encinia. Everyone knows what’s coming.
Bland was driving from a visit with her family in suburban Naperville to her new job in Prairie View when Encinia pulled her over on July 10, 2015. The ensuing 39 seconds of the traffic stop are a matter of public record: According to Bland’s own cellphone recording, he threatened to “light you up,” then cuffed her, held her on the ground with a knee to her back and put her in the squad car. Three days later she was found dead in her jail cell. The police called it suicide. Bland’s family, among millions of others, vehemently protested that conclusion. Bland’s death became a seminal moment in the Black Lives Matter movement, her truncated future a bitter example of its urgency.
Janelle isn’t Bland and “graveyard shift” isn’t a documentary. But under Dayna Taymor’s thoughtful direction, Janelle’s story amplifies Bland’s voice alongside those of countless others.
tuttle’s script is at its best when he focusses on Janelle, whom Hicks embodies with magnificence and complexity. She’s a warrior, whether sending out resumes or negotiating the terms of her relationship with her beloved partner Kane (Debo Balogun, utterly recognizable as man whose love is as all-powerful as the woman he adores). Both are struggling to negotiate the aftershocks of college: The job search is filled with rejection. He doesn’t want to propose while he’s buried in post-college debt. When she gets a job offer at her alma mater in Prairie View, the couple finds itself at the corner of joy and reckoning.
Balogun and Hicks vividly capture that pivotal moment when adulting ceases to be a jokey verb and becomes a conscious decision to embrace the epic workload and responsibilities of a long-term career and a long-term relationship. The dialogue memorably addresses the additional pressures faced by African Americans.
But tuttle’s script flags whenever it turns away from Janelle — and it does so with regularity — to focus on the white cops working the graveyard shift in Prairie View. Brian delivers an indulgent, ultimately meaningless monologue to a family of raccoons. Night shift supervisor Trish (Lia D. Mortensen) waxes poetic about her study-abroad semester and the man that got away. Brian’s sometime girlfriend Elise (Rae Gray) wants to be a singer. All of this is a distraction that contributes little to “graveyard shift.”
The one non-Janelle scene that feels necessary comes when Brian and Elise show who they really are, via a rap duet that illustrates — with language that elicited gasps form the opening night audience — their ignorance of history and their casual appropriation of African American culture. Brian’s subsequent yearning for the good old days when “phones didn’t have cameras” sounds like the whining of a spoiled child, but it underscores the danger he presents.
Kristen Robinson’s minimalist set design has the audience surrounding the stage on three sides, effectively putting tuttle’s characters inside a fishbowl. It serves the surrealist mood that creeps in as Janelle sits alone in her cell, staring down the chasm that has opened up at her feet.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.