The biggest detriment cast in society on art [writing] and poetry is that it’s entertainment when it’s actually air to breathe.
It helps us express who we are and stand in relation to what matters.”
Super Soul Sunday Star Mark Nepo
In other words, art helps us thrive. And immersive art, where the audience merges with the story-telling, is an intravenous shot of what we humans need in these difficult times as we long for community, interaction, discussion, elevation of consciousness, and a touch of humanity. Last night, I experienced it all.
It happen as I became a part of the immersive experience of “The Bitter Game,”an innovative play, written and performed by Keith A. Wallace, literally, playing at the classy and pristine Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, a place where diverse voices are always welcome, seen and heard.
The minimalist set, containing stuff that would be found in a Philadelphia community, where Mr. Wallace was raised, was staged on the Terrance of the Wallis Annenberg, juxtaposed against glistening, holiday lights of Beverly Hills. Once on the set, I plopped down in a chair next to the “Free Shit” tub of sodas and invited people, whom Mr. Wallace would eventually instruct me to meet, to grab a soda.
Then I jump-roped with two people beckoning me to join their twirling robes. I shook my butt while line dancing to my favorite, funky music spinning by the DJ. And, finally, I shot a few hoops. Then, a lean, handsome fellow, in Nike tennis shoes with a backpack, skipped out. By now, I was feeling free and uninhibited as my best self, so, quite naturally, I skipped along with him in a rhythmic beat, not realizing that he was the “Keith A. Wallace,” the playwright, a recipient of the 2016 Princess Grace Theater Award, United Solo Festival Avant-Garde Award and a San Diego Critics Award nominee for Outstanding Solo Performance.
The Wallis’ Terrence had been transformed into a community. And all of this occurred before I met the main characters of “The Bitter Game:” Little Jamel and his mother Pam, who teaches him how to thrive and survive in a tough neighborhood by sharing these instructions: Head up, Face Forward, Ego Down. Mr. Wallace then takes us on a journey through Jamel’s life, growing up in Philly, as he tries to follow his Mama’s instructions, but, unfortunately, has several encounters, no fault of his own, with police. The rest is a story that has been analyzed, discussed, and debated over and over again about how to prevent police from killing black boys and men, unjustly. A discussion that will, rightfully, continue until there is justice for Black men in America.
Yet, Mr. Wallace and his co-creator, Deborah Stein, share this story in such a dynamic, fresh, exciting, and innovative way that it opens the hearts of the audience, making us see with fresh eyes, while leading us to an elevated intellectual discussion afterward, held in the Wallis Annenberg’s beautiful lobby. It was guided by Black Lives Matter activist Shamell Bells, a mother, community organizer, choreographer and Ph.D. student in Culture and Performance at UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures/Dance.
Finally, Mr. Wallace joined us, initially, sitting next to me, his skipping partner. But, suddenly, he leaped over to plop down in front of his baby sister as his twin sister looked on, admiringly and lovingly. I, then, leaned into another member of the community, a Jewish woman sitting next to me, who had brought her two sons, ages 7 and 10, to experience the play and this type of community, in spite of its adult language, at times.
Without our masks, we talked softly about our hopes and dreams for America. How we were ashamed that Black men had suffered such unjust treatment. We whispered that our prayer is that America will become all that its meant to be, a place where all people thrive, regardless of their skin color and the neighborhood in which they live.
I’m grateful that Mr. Wallace accepted the challenge to inspire us all to remove our masks, then say the names of those killed by police violence, acknowledge that silence is violence and that we’re all in this thing together as an American Community. I’m thankful that he understands that when we come together as a community to tackle hard issues, then, and only then, do we really thrive! And, finally, I’m proud that the Wallis Annenberg Center For Performing Arts always provides such a beautiful, soothing place for the diverse community of Los Angeles to gather because its leadership understands one thing: That True Thriving Is Not For The Faint At Heart.