‘Cops and Robbers’ tackles issues of race, justice

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By 8 p.m. Saturday night, demonstrators protesting the decisions not to indict the police officers allegedly involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were blocking traffic at University Avenue and Acton Street.

At 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jinho “the Piper” Ferreira donned his signature black t-shirt and black pants and took to the stage for his 26th performance at the Marsh theater in Berkeley this year. He was performing his own one-man play, written in 2012 and titled “Cops and Robbers.” The play tells the story of a police-involved shooting through the scrutinizing gaze of 17 different people, all of whom are played by Ferreira.

The story begins in medias res, just as members of a news station arrive at an abandoned factory where an apparent shootout has occurred between police officer Earl Washington and a black man with the last name McDaniels. Shots have been fired by both men, and neither seem willing to back down.

Outside the factory, news of the transpiring events spread like wildfire. The situation is quickly opened up for debate by a preacher, a conservative radio talk show host, a friend of the armed man, a news reporter, several police officers and others fascinated by the events. Though no one fully switches sides on the issue, opinions constantly shift as new bits of information emerge, creating a verbal tension that parallels the physical tension crescendoing within the factory where Washington and McDaniels are still having their stand off.

For a show that is concerned with tackling the issue of what is right and wrong in the world today, neither side presents a very loud or compelling argument. Rather, Ferreira’s embodiment of every colorful and exaggerated character seems to simultaneously implicate all in the incident, whether or not they knew those involved or even took a stance on the situation. Through the diversity of its characters, Ferreira’s play explores the impact of each point of view.

Around 9:30 p.m. Saturday, very likely during the second act of “Cops and Robbers,” officers blocked off the intersection of Durant and Telegraph avenues and surrounded the crowd of protesters. The protesters responded to the mechanical voice issuing through the officers’ megaphone by raising their hands up in the air and chanting “no justice, no peace,” as they edged forward toward the officers then shrunk back in turns.

Ferreira, who is a law enforcement officer in Alameda County by day, storms through his play without hesitation or fault. He is powerful in the way a natural disaster is powerful as it blusters forward, affecting only a relatively small piece of land but with such a passionate fury that it grips the attention of an entire country. Ferreira’s performance is exquisite, angry and thoughtful. It doesn’t simply capture the audience’s attention — it seizes it and thrusts viewers into a situation in which they are made to feel invested.

Though the bulk of the play directly concerns the altercation between the police officer and the suspect and its aftermath, the issue Ferreira seems to want to address is something infinitely darker and more complex. The characters he plays are not witnesses but contributors to the circumstances that allowed the incident to happen. The play is a call for reform that goes beyond policy or regulation and pokes at the ideas and systems underlying the two.

Ferreira implies that media has played a role in causing the incident, as have notions of race, the penal and justice systems, religion and the wider community. It is up to the viewer to sort out the right and wrong among these aspects to discover what must be done. As one of Ferreira’s characters says near the show’s close, “If human beings are the problem, Mr. Washington, then human beings could be the solution.”

At 2:30 a.m., cries of “Whose streets? Our streets!” continued to drift down Durant Avenue.

“Cops and Robbers” will play for one final performance: Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. at the Marsh theater

Anne Ferguson covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].