The facts surrounding Tyisha Miller‘s death at the hands of the Riverside police are still not fully known 16 years after the horrible event. It was late, she was asleep or unresponsive in her locked car as her friend went to get help for a flat tire. Police were aware that she had a gun in her lap when they broke a window to try to help her. They thought she made a threatening move and opened fire, ending her life at age 19. There was outrage and protest, most of which has faded from memory as they have with countless subsequent incidents. The gap between an increasingly militarized police industry and the citizens they’re ostensibly charged with protecting keeps widening.
In Dreamscape, playwright Rickerby Hinds has set himself the task of ensuring that Miller’s death is not forgotten and that something positive may somehow come of it. It’s an absorbing, thought-provoking 70 minute movement and spoken-word duet at the LATC’s Encuentro Festival for two more performances – matinee and evening – on 25 October 2014.
Tyisha Miller becomes Myeisha Mills in the retelling. A sinuous and explosive Rhaechyl Walker portrays Myeisha and several of her family members. It starts at the end with Mills describing a scream that won’t come out – the stupor in which the police found her after a night of clubbing. We then flash back and forth as a young girl grows up both trying to find and then to make something of herself. It’s not a grim life, devoid of hope but her Riverside is far from Mayberry.
Her bullet-riddled future is presented in the rich, resonant one-man chorus of John ‘Faahz’ Merchant. He narrates and beatboxes to an insistent and ominous score alternately playing cop and coroner in flawless counterpoint to Walker. Given his intent (of which more later) Hinds subtly indicts without demonizing. We hear the words of the police report through Merchant and Jack Webb would be proud. A 24 year old cop approaches with his gun pointed down, he believes Mills needs medical help and takes out the window with his baton. Hearing a noise and thinking it a gunshot, he falls backward and the real bullets begin to fly.
Early in the work, Mills wishes she was a white girl. This is not for any lack of pride in her ethnicity but for the benefit-of-the-doubt, the presumption of innocence that comes with that territory – ‘The “Officer, can you help me” kind-a way.’ Salon’s trenchant 1999 piece on the shooting asked whether Miller would have been alive had she been white and wasn’t able to conclusively say that she would. There were some counterexamples. But, facts from the future tell a very different story. Following Chris Rock’s advice guarantees nothing. Even the ever-cynical Onion threw up its hands not once, but twice this year: First after the Zimmerman acquittal and then after Ferguson.
So, it was four policemen versus one young woman, admittedly with a weapon and with at minimum an excess of alcohol in her bloodstream. Merchant recites the cold facts from the coroner’s report. Bullets enter, do their work, and leave. Snaps and rolls used to describe day-to-day life become recoil. We learn how much abuse the human body can take. Nine wounds from bullets entering arms, shoulders, the back, and scalp are ‘non-fatal.’ Bullets ten through twelve go through her head and from that there is no recovery. Most of us, no matter our leanings, acknowledge the difficulties police and emergency personnel daily face. But, does it take four officers and twelve bullets to control a semi-conscious teenager?
The low-ceilinged, almost claustrophobic LATC gallery space fits the show surprisingly well – the walls close in on the audience as they closed in on Miller. Discreet effects complement the action and there’s something quite powerful yet hard to describe in the convergence of hip-hop, dance, and theatre.
‘Dreamscape’ is described as a meditation and a reimagining. Hinds’s curtain speech and talkback repeatedly conveyed his desire for dialogue and conversation. It is not a documentary and one surmises he wants his art to shape instead of reflect. The show has toured nationally and internationally and will likely continue to do so. While some performances have had police and family members of police in attendance, the LATC audience’s sympathies were not in doubt during the show and especially not in the talkback. The question remains how to effect any kind of change through art when the people who need to be reached aren’t there.
It was nice to see the LATC again after many years, tastefully redecorated, with a lobby full of people, and an excellent donation-based coffee bar. Drawing conclusions from a single observation is always dangerous but one can hope that this bodes well for the remainder of this inaugural Encuentro festival and for future editions.
Encuentro 2014 at the LATC Gallery
Saturday, 10/25 @ 2:30pm and 8:30pm
514 South Spring St. Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tickets: 866.811.4111 or by Web at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/28125/1412179367200