‘It could be me’: Real-life tragedy intrudes on Children’s Theatre play about police killings

Children’s Theatre Company was one week into rehearsals for a new play helping parents talk with their youngsters about police killings of Black men when news broke that a 22-year-old Black man had been shot and killed by Minneapolis officers during a no-knock search warrant operation.

That real-life tragedy echoed events in “Something Happened in Our Town,” which begins previews Sunday at the Minneapolis theater. The Amir Locke killing on Feb. 2 gutted cast members and made some anxious that they were not just playing characters that they could leave onstage but also that they themselves might live out tragic scenarios in real life.

“I hope I don’t get killed when I’m older,” said De’Anthony Jackson, a Black seventh-grader at Stonebridge World School in Minneapolis who plays one of the leads. He spoke just days after the incident, his fears raw and before the cast had gotten professional counseling. “I thought about Amir a lot. I watched a little bit of the video and it was hard to see. We don’t know when it’s gonna happen again. The next one could be next week, next month. It could be me.”

“It’s angering and sad,” said Lola Ronning, a white eighth-grader at the Friends School in St. Paul who plays another lead character. “We were talking [in rehearsal] about this. People shared their experiences, how they’re scared for their own lives. In my head I’m thinking, no one should have to deal with that — to live like that.”

A lot of theater exists in fanciful realms that offer moral lessons, imaginative beauty and implicit appeals to our better angels. But there’s also a strain of socially engaged work that reflects the pathos, majesty and mess of the American mosaic. After the killing of George Floyd, which happened a mere 2 miles from the Children’s Theatre, artistic director Peter Brosius asked how his company could help parents deal with the issues and images that continue to overwhelm social media and the news cycle.

He commissioned playwright Cheryl West, a longtime CTC collaborator, to adapt a 2018 New York Times bestselling children’s book, “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story of Racial Injustice,” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard. The narrative orbits two families — one Black, the other white — as they respond to a police killing in their community. West added two characters to the story — a Black teenager and a police officer.

Longtime CTC member Dean Holt plays the officer, Uncle Manny. Rehearsing the play is like going through a building on fire for him, and the role sticks to him, as it does to others, like smoke on his clothes and skin.

“As theater people, my emotions are always on edge but now a lot of this stuff I’m bringing home with me,” Holt said. “I’m not sleeping well. I’m more emotional than ever with anything that gets close to this topic.”

Coping strategies

To help the cast cope with its awakened trauma, the theater did something that is highly unusual for a performing arts company. It brought in a crisis counselor — mental health clinician Jamil Stamschror-Lott, who has been working with youth and families in the aftermath of violent crises in the Twin Cities, including with students in Richfield, where there was a recent school shooting.

This is the first time Stamschror-Lott and his company, Creative Kuponya, have worked with a theater. As the actors take on roles that reflect reality, it can be difficult for them to process the trauma that they are summoning for art, and carrying in real life, Stamschror-Lott said.

“That is especially true for young bodies re-enacting traumatic situations when they’re clearly experiencing traumatic situations in their own lives,” Stamschror-Lott said.

He shared coping strategies with the actors, trying to get them out of the fight, flight and freeze modes that seize our bodies even before we become aware of them. The strategies included breathing techniques, humming and other ways to release tension and reset the body.

People have a sense that addressing issues of mind, body and spirit are key to one’s well-being, and while that’s true, “your environment also plays a role in how we process pain and complete the stress response cycle,” Stamschror-Lott said. “That’s particularly true for those bodies of marginalized groups — racism is always present, homophobia, sexism — so there’s a component of your body that never gets to relax.”

The play’s director Timothy Douglas knows that struggle all too well. He knew immediately after Locke’s killing that he had to turn the rehearsal room into a safe space for the actors and creative team to share their emotions. He was feeling traumatized himself.

“Whenever one of these stories breaks in the news — and they’re always breaking — I feel it,” said Douglas, who is on leave from Emerson College because he wants to tend to his mental health. “Every time a Black man is shot, at some level it’s happening to me. In ‘Postcards From the Edge,’ the Meryl Streep character says, ‘I don’t want life to imitate art, I want life to be art.’ I don’t. I don’t want to feel like I’m in the plays I’m directing.”

The Locke killing has made him feel constricted. Wherever Douglas goes for work — and he has directed shows across the country and internationally — he likes to amble for fresh air and to clear his head. But concerns about being misperceived, profiled or worse, put a stop to that practice in the Twin Cities.

“As a tall Black man who enjoys walking and walking at night, I’m afraid to go out,” Douglas said. “I’m always looking over my shoulder and particularly looking out for a lone white woman who may not see me coming. I don’t feel safe here in Minneapolis.”

Douglas’ feeling is not unusual. A recent Harvard study showed that Black and Latino high school students who were within half a mile of a police killing “experience significant decreases in GPA lasting several semesters. And they are 15% more likely to be classified with emotional disturbance — a chronic learning disability associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression.”

Studies out of Rutgers and Penn State universities also support the notion that repeated exposure to killings on social media streams often lead people to display the symptoms of PTSD.

“Just seeing this stuff over and over again is impacting the well-being,” Stamschror-Lott said.

Carrying it home

But what about the performers, who must wake this up for performances even as they have those feelings in real life? Is there a way to escape? And can children just get a chance to be, well, just kids?

Veteran actor Kevin West, who plays a Black father in “Something Happened,” said that he walks his dog to the park and along the Mississippi to take off the stress. And he’s been doing that for 30 years.

“Something did happen here,” West said. “I live in the city where all this trauma has happened. I went to the protests and saw the rioting. I live a mile from the Third Precinct. They burned down my gas station on 47th and Hiawatha and the Walgreens that was a block from my house. This is very much the closest character to who I actually am — he, like me, is a father, a husband, an educator and a Black man.”

De’Anthony, 12, identifies closely with his role, Josh.

“He doesn’t think any of this happens a lot, so when it happens and it’s such a big deal, he’s confused,” he said. “I’m confused. He thought that police were good people, and some are. But some make the wrong decisions, and he’s confused about that.”

A kid who likes to wrestle and play basketball, De’Anthony treasures many youthful things. But fear has made him grow up quicker than most.

“Anytime police drive by now, I try not to make contact with them because I don’t want them to think I’m doing something suspicious,” De’Anthony continued. “I don’t want them to hurt me.”

His mother, Christy Jackson, said that she daily fights her own fears for her family. She will not allow her oldest son, who is 20, to drive.

“I have three sons and a husband who’s very tall with dark skin,” she said. “Right now my boys are very cute to everybody, but when they get older, they’re not going to be so adorable to everyone. That’s what scares me.”

In some ways, the play has helped equip the actors and their families with ways to tackle issues that continue to convulse the nation. But the challenges and struggles, which are life-and-death for many, remain. And people of all races and backgrounds have a role to play, intimated Lola’s mother, Evelyn Ronning.

“As a parent, it’s great to learn from all the perspectives,” Ronning said. “I hate to say it like this, but when we have the next police killing, as a family, we stop and talk about it. We talk about the person, what it means. We say their names. We have to be a part of the change that needs to happen.”

Douglas said he appreciated the opportunity to direct a show at CTC. As he thought of his actors, he also thought of everyone else.

“I was inspired to take action because of what happened here, but now it’s time to act,” Douglas said. “We need to do a lot more than just talk.”

As the play got closer to opening, De’Anthony was feeling more like a kid again, and was hopeful. He’d made friends in the cast with whom he plays video games.

And he echoed Douglas’ sentiment.

“If this play changes just people in Minnesota, that’s a good impact,” De’Anthony said. “It will take all of us to make things better together.”

Something Happened in Our Town’
By: Adapted by Cheryl West. Directed by Timothy Douglas.
When: 7 p.m. Sun., Tue.-Fri., 1 & 5 p.m. Sat. & Sun. Ends March 27.
Where: Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks required for ages 2 and up. Vaccination cards or proof of negative COVID-19 test for ages 12 and up.
Tickets: $15-$63. 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org.