Police brutality hits close to home in Redtwist Theatre's 'Between Riverside and Crazy'
Updated: Dec 27, 2019
When you step into the space of Redtwist Theatre, there is an immediate intimacy that never quite leaves you. Whether you choose to sit near the living room or the kitchen, this intricate home set up by scenic designer James Schwartz clues us into its tenants: comfortable, tired, and a bit in disarray with secrets hidden beneath those couch cushions. There are stories tucked away within the black and white family portraits lined above the couch, a lit Christmas tree hanging onto its last pine needles, and a wheelchair used to complete a set of kitchen chairs.
While the set envelopes you, it's a bit of a slow burn to understand what Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy entails. It requires a couple sips into that glass of whiskey or finishing off some sleeves of cookies to go beyond the small talk and delve into the nitty gritty. We're first introduced to Walter (Kenneth D. Johnson) aka 'Pops' whose home is nearly open to everyone who passes through. This includes Oswaldo (Johnny Garcia) who's in recovery, Junior (Kevin Tre’Von Patterson), his son, Lulu (Almanya Narula), Junior's girlfriend, and Audrey and Dave (Karen Hill, Adam Bitterman), Walter's former cop buddies. Walter is beloved by all (or so it seems), but particularly struggles to have such an effect on Junior.
Walter constantly criticizes his son and Junior can never quite get through to his father that he needs to move things along with his life so they can both be happier. But Walter's pride refuses to let Junior in and he wants to live out the rest of his days (however many there may be) eating, drinking, and spending whatever money he has however he wants. The pull for power between father and son is a painful match to witness and it continues to ping pong never quite knowing if a tie of balance can be accomplished.
Junior hints at a law suit that Walter refuses to settle that's dragged on for years and seems will never end. The shoe finally drops when Walter reminisces with former partner Audrey, and newly minted fiancée, Dave. Dave tells Walter their true impetus for coming over is that the NYPD wants Walter to drop the suit against them. The suit spurned from an incident where an intoxicated Walter was off-duty and was shot six times by a white rookie cop who also called him the "n" word. Needless to say Dave's kind suggestion is immediately exposed by Walter for what it really is: an attempt for Dave to advance his position at the NYPD. Despite their apparent camaraderie, the bosom buddies exterior drops when Walter is being faced with abandoning not only his legal claim, but his identity as a black, ex-cop, army veteran.
When brought with this proposition, the range of Johnson's emotions is a sight to behold. He expresses all the frustration, pain, and deep buried fears that he's experienced since the day of the incident. He has a monologue that destroys any sort of doubt or vagueness that Dave, Audrey, and the NYPD could be showing him any genuine support. He unleashes a fire that only continues to spread in Act II where he proves he may be beaten down, but hasn't run out of steam yet. He will not back down from this fight, even if everyone else feels it's no longer worth fighting for.
Walter's dilemma offers resonant commentary on race relations within the police community. It offers an introspective view from working on the inside especially being a person of color, and how the choice of being an officer is perceived among coworkers, family members, and strangers. It also shows that people reveal their true selves in such intense situations. There is no way to tip toe around or sweep things under the rug when you are caught in this web entrapping many players. Things like white guilt and embedded racism are exposed, and while the damage is painful it does allow honesty to come to the forefront. Trauma can be processed and worked toward healing once everyone puts aside their ego and focuses on speaking their truth.
While Walter's story shines through, I found myself struggling to find investment in the side stories. These included Oswaldo's daddy issues, Junior and Lulu's romantic squabbles, and a church lady who attempts to exorcise Walter's demons via Madonna's "Like a Prayer" method than by biblical means. I don't discredit this on any of the actors' efforts. Part of what accelerates this show is its strong ensemble. Audrey and Dave's New York accents made this east coast girl feel back at home. Junior demonstrated an inner battle that ends up spilling over in loving, but not knowing how to navigate his relationships with Lulu and Walter. While Guirgis provides us with compelling characters, he doesn't provide enough to service their own stories. It feels like all the characters excel the most in relation to Walter's conflict.
Although at times Guirgis' text feels painfully dated and sometimes aimless in contributing to the central story, Walter's journey is one worth taking. To feel so immersed in a family's conflict be it inches away from someone opening up their heart as it's about to burst or slamming down a bottle of whiskey as they're on the verge of self-destruction, there are palpating moments that are worth a ringside seat. Come for the politics, stay for the emotionally gobsmacking dialogue about a black man living in a world determined to bring him down.