‘From Red to Black’ analyzes truth, race and identity in crime setting

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There are certain police-story stereotypes: good cop vs. bad cop, a more experienced older officer pitted against a cocky young cop, a kid from “the hood” falling through the cracks and ending up in a police interrogation room. These stories have been told over and over, and yet, in “From Red to Black,” playwright Rhett Rossi and director Susi Damilano make them feel fresh and relevant once again.

The play runs until Aug. 30 at the A.C.T. Costume Shop Theatre, a small space which is currently hosting the San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series, which “From Red to Black” is a part of. The Sandbox Series commonly features recent Bay Area grads — as well as emerging artists, like Isiah Thompson. Thompson is absolutely riveting as William, the young black man who is seen as the main suspect in the murder investigation around which the play revolves.

“From Red to Black” follows two policemen — younger Jack Flanagan (Matthew Baldiga) and older Denny Mitchell (Charles Shaw Robinson) —  in their investigation of a death on New York subway tracks. A man with a successful career in New York and a successful family life at home in Long Islandfalls to his death late one night while returning from the office. Did he fall, or was he pushed? Did the interaction he had with two young men on the subway platform moments before his death have anything to do with it? Can a system that has so clearly failed a whole facet of society really step up at the last moment to pull someone up from falling through the cracks?

The “good cop, bad cop” routine, too, adds to the play’s dynamic discussion of racial and political structures, both illustrating differing sides of societal views on policemen — an interesting aspect that speaks loudly to the ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri. William says he has claustrophobia, yet is not allowed to leave the cell for the duration of the play, despite Jack’s best efforts. The production discusses police brutality and immorality frequently, both in the characters’ actions and in an undertone, because no audience member can watch the play and not think about Mike Brown, about Trayvon Martin, about Oscar Grant. As Denny puts it, when Jack asks him if he’s familiar with the broken windows theory: “I prefer the broken nose.”

Even when working together on the investigation, Jack and Denny come up against each other. Jack has planted himself firmly on William’s side, trying to protect his life and freedom. Denny, on the other hand, is trying to protect the family of the victim. As he puts it: “There’s two choices I can make. First choice, everybody loses. Second choice, some people — children — get a leg up.”

But, “From Red to Black” asks: whose life is more valuable than whose? Who really deserves the “leg up”? Defending innocent children is usually the most just thing to do, but what about defending the life of a potentially innocent, oppressed man, saving him from a hell he might not deserve?

It’s an ironic and realistic look at guilt and conscience — there’s guilt where it eats someone alive, and there’s guilt that eats someone’s life away while they rot inside a prison. It’s brutal at times in its honesty, the sort of play in which you can’t escape the real world, because there it is laid out on stage. The production discusses how our intentions and our actions don’t always line up, how life and circumstances can get in the way. As an idealistic Jack says about William: “This kid was sentenced before he was born, like a lamb to the slaughter,” to which Denny responds, “Ah, I see, you thought you were going to be a shepherd, but you became a butcher.” The audience can’t help but wonder how many of these scenes play out across the country every day — shepherds into butchers, a messy institutional ranking of lives.

“From Red to Black” runs through Aug. 30 at the A.C.T. Costume Shop in San Francisco.

Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].