korde arrington tuttle’s graveyard shift, now making its world-premiere following an initial workshop production during Goodman Theatre’s 2018 New Stages Festival, is a haunting and beautiful reflection on police brutality against Black Americans. Inspired by the legacy of 28-year-old Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in her prison cell in 2015 after being arrested for failing to signal a lane change, graveyard shift is also remarkable in its capacity for empathy and its meditation on shared humanity. graveyard shift is an undeniably brutal play, as it should be given its subject matter, but tuttle also writes his dialogue in such a poetic way that I was equally stunned by the play’s beauty.
While we as an audience may not like all of the character’s in graveyard shift — and certainly not Brian, the highway patrol officer responsible for the arrest of the central character, Janelle — tuttle uses the narrative of his specific characters as a way to expose the inherent flaws in the police system. tuttle’s script powerfully conveys that the actions of highway patrol officer Brian in large part stem from the biases that are so deeply ingrained in him. This becomes a microcosm for the issue at hand: How can those with power learn to overcome those racial biases so that we can avoid these unnecessary acts of brutality and unnecessary deaths? How can we learn to shift the lens through which we see those around us?
These are profound and powerful questions, but graveyard shift also lives in subtle moments. Director Danya Taymor gives the production a dynamic staging that conveys a deep intimacy between the characters, creating a striking divide between these small, everyday moments and the gravity of Janelle’s ultimate fate. The play opens with a conversation between Janelle (Aneisha Hicks), a young Black woman hoping to find a job that will propel her career to the next level, and her boyfriend, Kane (Debo Balogun). Janelle ponders what she should leave in her voicemail recording, hoping that prospective employers will call soon. The two have an easy banter, which tuttle’s poetic language belies. tuttle’s dialogue occupies a captivating space between natural and utterly poetic, which makes graveyard shift all the more resonant and haunting.
The play’s second scene introduces the remaining cast of characters: Three employees of the highway patrol department of the law enforcement in Prairie View, Texas. While seasoned administrative employee Trish (Lia Mortensen) and Elise (Rae Gray) spend their days working the night shift in the office, Brian (Keith D. Gallagher) is a highway patrol officer on probation who is newly adjusting to office life. Again, tuttle introduces a situation for these characters that is simultaneously high stakes and yet also has a quotidian feel. Elise, who has been having an affair with the married Brian, reveals to Trish that she has a secret to tell him. tuttle constructs many such parallels between his characters in graveyard shift, down to their musical tastes and innermost thoughts. In this way, the play beautifully communicates that notion of shared humanity—until Brian’s biased instincts come out and set the characters on entirely diverging paths (and, of course, an immensely tragic path for Janelle).
The production design echoes tuttle’s artistry when it comes to that balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Set designer Kristen Robinson has created a vertical stage that extends the length of the Goodman’s Owen Theatre, with audience members seated on either side. The production makes use of set pieces rolled onto the stage to convey different physical locations. But at the back of Robinson’s set is a panel that opens and closes to reveal an immense blue sky behind it. This strikingly represents Janelle’s lost chances for a life with a successful career and a long romantic relationship with her partner—a possibility that is tragically taken from her at the hands of law enforcement. At the same time, this sky also represents the unknown—a life taken too soon and gone off to a place that none of us know. Richard Woodbury’s original music and sound design add to the intensity of the play, as does Marcus Doshi’s lighting that punctuates some of the most critical moments. Taymor stages the crucial exchange between Brian and Janelle at the play’s climax with the two actors facing away from one another, covered in shadow with spotlights on their faces. It makes the moment all the more haunting, further enforcing that Brian is acting out of mistaken instincts and not treating Janelle with the human courtesy she deserves.
With a play that’s so focused on the core of what it means to be human and to be treated with dignity, Taymor has assembled an ensemble of formidable actors up to the challenge. Hicks’s performance as Janelle is absolutely devastating. She infuses the character with heart, humor, and sharp edges—and then delivers an immense and heart-wrenching monologue towards the play’s end with such ease. I’ve rarely heard a theater as silent as it was when Hicks delivers Janelle’s monologue from her prison cell; she commands the stage with such force. Together, Hicks and Balogun have a beautiful rapport that conveys the messiness of a real-life relationship; they demonstrate that the love they have for one another is flawed but deep. This isn’t a fairy-tale romance but one that has room to change and grow. Balogun also makes a keen shift from many more light-hearted moments at the play’s beginning and then to a haunting and convincingly portrayal of a man left to grieve the untimely loss of his love.
Gallagher bestows a great deal of humor onto Brian in his early scenes, then pivots to a magnificently stone-hearted and forcible delivery in his pivotal interaction with Janelle. Mortensen’s take on Trish conveys a desperation that doesn’t veer too far on the side of pity; she allows us to see Trish’s discontentment with her many years on the graveyard shift at the highway patrol office and her longing for more out of life. As Elise, Gray provides an excellent counterpart to Trish—she still has time to make a new life for herself. Gray conveys all of Elise’s excitement at the possibility of escaping the mundane office life, but she’s equally powerful during the character’s quietly and profoundly contemplative moments.
tuttle conveys the horror of Janelle’s untimely death at the hands of a flawed law enforcement system that in the moment only chooses to see her for the color of her skin, but he writes the play in such a way that it never feels preachy. Instead, because of the unique, poetic language and the captivating performances from the Goodman’s cast, graveyard shift is an entirely raw, intense, and emotional experience.
graveyard shift runs through March 8 in the Owen Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $15-$45. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312.443.3800.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com