Nigil Whyte probably wasn’t thinking about irony when, he said, two police officers pulled their guns on him and a friend a few weeks ago as they got off the subway. All he was thinking about was the darkness of his skin and the black cell phone in his hand that could have easily been mistaken for a gun.
It was a case of mistaken identity, Whyte said — it turned out that the officers were looking for a suspect on a different train. But they might not have known that if not for the train conductor yelling at them.
When fear faded, the irony set in, as Whyte told a crowd Saturday night in Clinton Hill. He had just finished playing Emmett Till in “Outcry,” a new play at the JACK Theater. “Outcry” is centered around the killings of Till, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin: All young black men cut down in fits of violence.
When the police looked at him, “They didn’t see an honor-roll college student,” Whyte said.
For playwright Thais Francis, “Outcry” is a visceral, guttural reaction to these deaths. “I am crying out and no one is hearing me,” Francis said during a pre-show interview.
Emmett Till’s murderers were acquitted after 67 minutes of jury deliberation. Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell were both unarmed when they were gunned down by plain clothes police officers, Diallo in 1999 and Bell in 2006. Their shooters were acquitted at trial.
It was Trayvon Martin’s death last February while walking home in Florida that drove Francis to tell the stories of all four men and boys. George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, is scheduled to go on trial in June; he’s expected to claim self-defense.
Francis – a self-described professional dreamer and native of Trinidad and Tobago who now lives in Flatbush – was in her last semester at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts at the time of Martin’s death. It was something she could not ignore, she said, and so she started writing, with the first draft written over spring break.
For Francis, the play is not necessarily about answering questions, it’s about asking them. Hence, a production that is heavy on emotion and less concerned with the purest accuracy. “I approached it how I felt,” she said.
What the audience feels is a broad mix of emotions as the characters move around JACK’s 50 seats arranged in-the-round.
Playing at JACK through Feb. 24, this is “Outcry’s” third incarnation. It was first performed as a student production at NYU last spring. Afterwards, producer Kelly Girod came aboard and helped Francis see the play to a workshop version at the end of the summer.
It was at the workshop that JACK’s artistic director, Alec Duffy, saw the play. “It was a really strong play that was giving voice to the voiceless,” Duffy said, a play he felt would work well as JACK’s second production. According to Duffy, JACK seeks to provide adventurous work that serves the community of Clinton Hill, a widely diverse neighborhood.
Even in its third incarnation, “Outcry” has deep connections with NYU, with many of the actors and production team members found through Francis’ connections around Washington Square. Saturday’s audience was also heavily drawn from NYU.
It was the third time AJ Muhammed had seen the play. As a friend of Francis, he’s seen each version. “This play is always going to be relevant,” Muhammed said of its themes.
“Outcry’s” actors shared the sentiment in a moderated conversation with the audience held immediately after the performance. Angela Polite, who played Mamie Till, saw the play as a chance to ensure the real people it portrays didn’t die in vain. “It has always been a reflection of what we are and what we’ve gone through,” she said.
Nigil Whyte related the story of his encounter with the police. He told the audience that “we have to pay homage to these people,” he said. Whyte saw the play as a chance to add texture to people so much less vivid when seen on Google and YouTube. Instead, “Outcry” is a chance to connect with live flesh and blood. “Emmett Till was somebody. He was alive,” Whyte said.
Playing Trayvon Martin, David Cork told the audience that he frequently walks home alone. “That could have been me,” Cork said of Martin’s death. “This is his opportunity to speak out and it’s my job to make sure that his voice is heard.”
Anger was perhaps the most common theme of the conversation. After her performance as Nicole Bell, actress Marchelle Thurman felt not much had really changed in society. In all of the cases across all the years, “None of these characters got justice,” she said.
Francis remains uncertain where “Outcry” will go from here. An actress, dancer and singer in addition to playwright, she’s currently writing songs and a film script.
As for “Outcry” and the men and boys it seeks to recall, you already know how it ends.