What is Uniform Justice Really About, Anyway? Five Things you May Not Know…

Have you seen the current poster for Uniform Justice? Or Visited the Uniform Justice Spring Tour page on the Intersections website? Or seen or heard any other press material? Maybe you just heard from a friend that there’s a new play out called Uniform Justice. That alone, I imagine, gives you a sense of what this play is about. If I go ahead and tell you that this play addresses conflict between law enforcement and community, and how that relationship affects the way we address violence in our cities as a community, and if in turn you decide to engage in this experience – and I hope you do – what will you come expecting?

Uniform Justice

I’ve shared the poster, as have many. And the internet has responded. A facebook user struck me with his question: “… I'd be interested in what sort of solutions are being tossed about. Is this a 'we gotta fix the cops' kind of event? 'We gotta ban guns'? or is this a 'We gotta empower the people? We gotta stitch up the community' Type thing?” If this gentleman came to see Uniform Justice, he would be expecting one of these things, and I think I get it. The issue of law enforcement-community relations is one of the most polarizing issues in our country today. So, if anyone is going to be addressing it on a public platform, particularly when that platform is broadly labeled “theatre for social change,” it’s reasonable to expect we are offering a solution of sorts. And in some ways, we are… but perhaps not in the way you think. I don’t necessarily want to reshape your expectations, but in reading this list below, I hope to expand the realm of possibility (and of course, increase your interest in coming!) regarding what you anticipate. That said, here are five things you may not know about Uniform Justice:

1) This is a story, intended to resonate with people in different ways. It’s inspired by Insight conversations conducted in Memphis (More on what Insight is, later.) — conversations where community members shared their own stories, and also opened up with their thoughts on police, violence, and relating topics. This story reflects those stories, as well as my general experiences traveling to Memphis monthly for nine months, as well as some of the history of Memphis!

2) This story is not offering a concrete solution, yet it creates a potential for profound community impact. It’s true that we gotta do something. And the characters in this story are clearly searching for what that is. What they/we are not doing, however, is laying out what exactly we need to do. We do, however, want to foster curiosity about human behavior when conflicts start and escalate. And we want to start a conversation about that. And we believe that such curiosity, when completely authentic and open-minded, can create true insights (there’s that word again…). We hope to model an application of Insight theory which does have the power to transform conflict.

3) This story grew out of a larger initiative that was geared to provide a more concrete solution. So, how have we applied Insight theory? A definition is near, I promise. There was an initiative called the Retaliatory Violence Insight Project (RVIP), a pilot project used to train police officers in Memphis, TN and Lowell, MA to view crime through a conflict lens, or in other words, address conflict behavior in addition to other aspects of a situation they are responding to. This entails using interpersonal communication skills to express authentic interest in the decision-making of a conflicting party or parties. Seen as a subtle adjustment to police engagement, this approach has led to fewer arrests and increased community cooperation in the neighborhoods where “Insight policing” has been applied.

Insight theory applied here essentially is the study of how the mind operates when engaging and disengaging in conflict, and Uniform Justice was conceived as an all-community inclusive extension of the RVIP, created by essentially applying Insight theory to theatre in every stage of this story’s creation.

4) In this story, police and community are one. Not that the characters necessarily see it that way, but this is the frame that has been torn away by conflict. I found that in Memphis, many of the police officers grew up in the communities they are policing, and so the police truly are by all means part of the community. This can still (for the most part) be the dynamic in a community where the police aren’t homegrown, as is the case here in my native New York City. I don’t mention this to say that recruiting police from within the community is the most ideal approach to staffing a department – and it has its pros and cons just like a contrary recruiting approach – but including law enforcement in the concept of community truly makes this experience all-inclusive, and at the very least mitigates the “Us vs Them” mentality.

5) Each performance is followed by a facilitated discussion, but it’s not your traditional “talk back.” It’s actually called an “Insight facilitated dialogue,” and our goal is to have the audience take in the piece as a collective experience, and then reflect on the way we have processed the experience. In deepening into concerns, cares, and hopes in the room, unique perspectives are almost always expressed. In remaining curious about our fellow audience members, we may find ourselves modeling that behavior back in the world, to some degree.

A Uniform Justice synopsis: Three childhood friends find themselves following distinctly different paths as they reach their early twenties. Jay is a recent college graduate with a more critical perspective on his community. Flip is a maintenance worker trying to launch a rap career. Rob becomes a police officer hoping to find an innovative approach to policing – his challenge will be finding a balance between his professional and personal life. His style will be paired up with that of a commanding officer, Charlie, who has a more traditional approach to policing, not to mention a retired officer as a father who has achieved "legendary status." Rob will encounter youth who remind him of himself, with parents who remind him of his parents (or lack of...) Jay, also lacking immediate parents, but having a grandmother to lean on, will see his friendship with Rob tested when he finds himself in a situation where he can use Robs help, personally and professionally (or perhaps his grandmother's help) but before enlisting their aid, must weigh other factors that urban youth will likely identify with. I won't give away too much of the plot, but if you take my synopsis, take my theoretical analysis, and take your past experiences, and decide to come see Uniform Justice - and I hope you do - what will you be expecting?