Community-police relations is an issue constantly in the news. The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August is just one example of the thousands of instances of police brutality that have sparked conversation.
The conversation is now being brought to Ithaca in the form of a play. Civic Ensemble, a community-based theater group in Ithaca, is performing “Safety,” an original play about community-police relations. Civic Ensemble was founded by Sarah K. Chalmers ’94, Jennifer Herzog and Godfrey L. SimmonsJr. in 2012 with the goal of producing community-based theater in an educational settling. Civic Ensemble focuses on issues involving women and people of color — two of the most underrepresented groups in theater, Chalmers said. The company conducts multiple professional shows, educational programs and talks each year, as well as one community show per year.
Chalmers said the idea for this year’s community show came about in September 2013 before the issue of police brutality was in the front of the news.
“Part of the reason we chose this topic was because it does keep erupting, and that doesn’t seem to be changing,” Chalmers said.
But the amount of times this issue erupts could change with conversation, which is exactly what this play is all about. Chalmers said everyone can find something in the show that they relate to, as well as something that makes them uncomfortable and forces them to think critically.
“We thought a play could open up the conversation in a new way,” she said.
The play focuses on community-police relations by using actors to tell stories about situations that have occurred with police. She said the play represents every member of the community, including police officers, activists, people who feel they’ve been discriminated against by the police and people who feel the police have saved their lives. All of these people helped create the show by participating in story circles at Ithaca College, Cornell University and in downtown Ithaca over a nine-month time period beginning last fall. Over 100 community members shared their stories at story circles, while 100 more participated in an online survey. In addition, interviews with a few police officers were conducted.
The stories in the play fit one of three formats: stories told verbatim from what someone shared at a story circle; dramatized versions of true stories that have additional dialogue and characters added to the stories that were shared at story circles; and more creative, abstract stories about interactions with police that the actors wrote parts of to create distinct images. Chalmers and Simmons wrote the play in collaboration with the cast.
Chalmers said writing the play was no easy task because it was important not to be biased toward those on either side of the issue.
“For this project, the most challenging thing has been making sure that the play gives different perspectives and a balanced representation of what a lot of different people in our community think [about police relations],” Chalmers said.
Chalmers holds a bachelor of fine arts in acting from the college and said she uses it to help her do more than just put on a play. The focus, discipline, confidence and foundation in acting she gained propelled her to accomplish her goal of having an impact, which she has with Civic Ensemble, she said.
Senior theater studies major and stage manager Ivy Stevens said many people have been turned off by the topic and assume the show either bashes or praises the police. She said the show is neither a bash nor a praise of police, but rather a fair representation of both police officers and community members.
Assistant director Melanie Hublard-Hershman said the play shows both sides of what police officers do in a community.
“It’s about what the police do for the community as well as the way they have affected the community,” Hublard-Hershman said.
The cast had an invited dress rehearsal on Sept. 18 where six friends and family members of the cast came and gave their feedback. Ithaca Police Chief John Barber was also in attendance. Stevens said the response was positive and those who attended felt as though the show was fair.
“The police chief came last night and gave us a thumbs up and said that certain parts might be hard for his officers to see, but he said he wasn’t walking away angry and he was pleased that we were fair to both sides,” Stevens said.
“Safety” is different from other shows in that it’s created by the community, run crew Hanna Mastrogiacomo said. Most plays are fictional stories told by fictional characters, but “Safety” contains nonfiction stories.
“People in Ithaca have told their stories and created a theater piece,” Mastrogiacomo said. “It’s very moving, and it is very true and honest … I think that it will genuinely make a difference.”
“Safety” comes to Ithaca College at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 26 in Textor 101.