‘Graveyard shift’ emits impactful social message despite weaknesses in script

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On the Creativity Museum stage on Oct. 20, two vastly different storylines play out side by side. When they eventually cross paths, the narrative that unfolds is both explosive and, as viewers come to see, inevitable. “Graveyard shift” presents the two sides of racialization within America, and specifically, the South. Audience members are given an intimate look into these stories — stories that seem vastly different from each other but are actually bound to intertwine. While there are some script issues as well as technical struggles, “graveyard shift” presents a fearless and explicit depiction of internalized racism.

Written by Korde Arrington Tuttle, the story follows a committed Black couple, Janelle (Sam Jackson) and Kane (Rondrell McCormick), who are finally moving in together after years of being in a long-distance relationship. On the other side of the plot, three cops are working the night shift at a small-town police station. There’s Brian (Max Carpenter), who is married but is having an affair with Elise (Amanda Farbstein), who is pregnant with his baby and keeping it a secret. Their co-worker, Trish (Gwen Loeb), knows about the pregnancy, disapproves of their relationship and is otherwise just kind of there. This San Francisco Playhouse production, directed by Melissa Crespo, is playing through Nov. 3.

These two storylines are starkly contrasted not only in content, but also in quality. The story of Janelle and Kane is full of depth and grounded in the visceral feelings that both characters radiate. Jackson and McCormick shine in these roles, bringing to life these characters who are already so deeply fleshed out and exuberant. Their chemistry is palpable, driving the storyline of these two people who love each other profoundly enough to work through the struggles that come with commitment and partnership.

This vitality of Janelle and Kane only highlights the lack of depth held by the other storyline. Elise, as a character, is made of cliches: a small-town girl, unintentionally pregnant and itching to get out. There is nothing beneath her surface. She is placed next to Brian, who is just as flat. He has one monologue in which he speaks to a raccoon that he is trying to catch. It’s an attempt to flesh him out, but, again, the surface is barely broken. Not only is it a lazy way to show his substance — through a monologue thrown into the text — but it doesn’t even fully humanize him. Finally, the third cop, Trish, is the least-explored character of all. She’s merely a device to reveal elements of Elise’s situation — more specifically, a way to reveal her pregnancy.

This disparity results in a very uneven plot, one in which it feels as if the police station scenes are just passing time until Janelle and Kane return. Regardless, the moment in which the worlds collide has the intended impact on viewers.

Janelle gets pulled over by Brian for failing to signal her lane change. For something so minor, things quickly get out of hand, driven by Brian’s unwarranted aggression and Janelle’s awareness of being mistreated.

The pace then speeds up in an effective contrast to the slower-moving beginning, while the dire consequences of what it means for an innocent Black woman to be in the wrong place at the wrong time become clear. The consequences of the moment of contention play out beautifully and heartbreakingly.

But, more than anything, it plays out in a strikingly realistic way. The tragic aftermath that follows is sudden, but not unexpected. Tuttle, with this story, is merely showing one instance of something that happens every day; he is pulling the audience into the lives of the people who make up news stories about these kinds of incidents.

Tuttle makes a lasting impact, leaving the audience with a sentence uttered by Kane that gets cut off in the middle. It’s as abrupt as can be, but is utterly fitting for the story. There is nothing neat or conclusive about society’s racialization. This story is still occurring, in real time, and Tuttle shows that with precision and clarity as he presents an ending that doesn’t actually end.

‘Graveyard shift’ is playing at The Creativity Museum in San Francisco through Nov. 3.

Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].