Quentin Tarantino’s movie Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is in part a gauzy wish fulfillment fantasy that fictionalizes and rewrites the true-life brutal murder of actor Sharon Tate. The play graveyard shift at the Goodman Theatre takes a similar, if not more practical, path. The play knows that it’s impossible to practice necromancy and raise the spirit of the beloved from the grave but hopes that perhaps it is possible to drape flowers on her legacy. Like Hollywood, graveyard shift bestows the same gentleness and beauty that Tarantino lavished on Tate. It’s an act of grace that is rarely granted to the average Black woman.
On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland moved from Chicago to Texas to begin a new job and was pulled over during a traffic stop by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia. The routine interaction, which should have resulted in no more than a warning or a ticket, quickly spiraled out of control and Bland, who recorded the entire exchange, was pulled from her car, forced to the ground, and arrested. Three days later, Bland was found dead, hanging in her jail cell. Encinia was indicted for perjury for making false statements about her arrest and fired; the charges were dropped when he agreed to leave law enforcement permanently.
The senseless and tragic murder of Black people by law enforcement in America has become a national crisis that Bland was aware of before her death and was an activist against. Rubbing salt in the gaping wound of these tragedies is the predictable and unempathetic public reaction. Within hours of these violent acts, the common reaction of the general public is to search for reasons why an officer might have been justified in an outsized violent overreaction, whether that Black victim was back-talking, selling cigarettes on the street, or walking home after buying Skittles.
The fact is that there is no justification for murder, and good police officers regularly take even extremely violent people into custody without causing harm. Racism is clearly in play. Writer korde arrington tuttle understands that even while processing the grief of loss of life, it is doubly brutal to reduce the life of a murdered Black woman to a statistic. He builds the scaffolding upon which to elevate the rest of her humanity in graveyard shift. Last April the Goodman and Black Lives, Black Words staged The Interrogation of Sandra Bland by Mojisolo Adebayo, a theatrical recounting of the transcript of the Sandra Bland traffic stop featuring 100 Black women, as part of the I Am . . . Fest. I was one of those 100 Black women. To engage with these works as a Black woman is to unflinchingly contemplate my own mortality.
Tuttle creates a fictional Black woman named Janelle who embodies the spirit of Bland, and we follow her through her job search and move from Chicago to Texas. Actor Aneisa J. Hicks plays Janelle with full vibrancy and joy, leavened with the moments of doubt and insecurity of being a young professional striving to establish a career in a troubled economy. Director Danya Taymor does an exceptional job keeping the scenes light and frothy in the beginning, wisely anticipating the challenge of staging a story whose ending we already know. Set designer Kristen Robinson has smartly arranged the stage as a marble cemetery slab, so even as we laugh at the many mirthful moments, it ominously never fully lets us forget that lynching looms in the future like a dark shadow.
Janelle is paired with Kane, her long-distance boyfriend in Texas, played by an incredibly sincere and heartbreaking Debo Balogun. We ride the heights and depths of their relationship, and Kane offers a flawed yet painful requiem of anguish after the inevitable. In a metaphorical mirror, the other side of the stage is the interior of a Texas state trooper’s office where we follow the day-to-day life of Brian, self-proclaimed fuckup and a proxy for Officer Encinia, played by Keith D. Gallagher. Gallagher brings a full and necessary humanity to a character that would be tempting to write off as a one-note villain. His affable “good ol’ boy” charm allows us to see that the face of evil is often one and the same with the faces of those that we love. A scene where Brian tells a cornered raccoon “I know you’re just trying to survive” foreshadows the tenderness often granted to animals that isn’t extended to cornered humans.
The play vacillates between traditional storytelling methods and lyrical, poetic stylings for occasionally on the nose, yet usually smart and impactful, effect. When Janelle and Kane playfully sing the lyrics “Say my name, when no one is around you, say baby I love you” it takes on a sickening double meaning when contrasted with Brian and Elise rocking out to rap music, singing the “N-word” with impunity, knowing that the PC police cannot mandate empathy in the graveyard of shadowy hearts. #SayHerName. v