Sandra Bland's death inspires haunting 'graveyard shift' at Goodman Theatre

  • Aneisa J. Hicks, right, and Keith D. Gallagher appear in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "graveyard shift," korde arrington tuttle's drama partly inspired by the legacy of former Naperville resident Sandra Bland.

    Aneisa J. Hicks, right, and Keith D. Gallagher appear in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "graveyard shift," korde arrington tuttle's drama partly inspired by the legacy of former Naperville resident Sandra Bland. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

 
 
Updated 2/20/2020 11:53 AM

Don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it.

The thought persisted as I watched a character in the achingly poetic play "graveyard shift" come to a devastating decision.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

I knew what the outcome would be. Goodman Theatre audience members familiar with the tragedy of Naperville's Sandra Bland knew it, too.

Her story partly inspired playwright korde arrington tuttle (who uses lowercase spelling), and his "graveyard shift" incorporates, in heart-pounding detail, the circumstances that preceded Bland's untimely death five years ago this July.

Kane (Debo Balogun), right, tries to reassure his girlfriend Janelle (Aneisa J. Hicks) about her career prospects in "graveyard shift," in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre.
Kane (Debo Balogun), right, tries to reassure his girlfriend Janelle (Aneisa J. Hicks) about her career prospects in "graveyard shift," in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Shortly after relocating to Texas for a new job in 2015, Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, was arrested on charges of a minor traffic violation. Her exchange with a Caucasian state trooper -- captured partly on the officer's dashboard camera and partly on Bland's cellphone -- grew increasingly contentious and concluded with her arrest. Three days later, she was found hanging in her jail cell.

Her death was ruled a suicide, which her family disputed. The trooper was fired and charged with perjury. Those charges were later dropped.

Tuttle places our sympathies with Bland counterpart Janelle (an impassioned, authentic Aneisa J. Hicks). Janelle is an unhappily employed marketing professional who gets a new job in Texas where her longtime, long-distance boyfriend Kane (Debo Balogun) resides. Insecurities underscore their on-again, off-again relationship, and both grapple with continuing police violence against people of color, which Janelle describes as "the state-sanctioned murder of black people."

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Standing in for the real-life trooper Brian Encinia is a small-town police officer named Brian (Keith D. Gallagher), whose life is in turmoil. Married to his high school sweetheart, Brian's having an affair with fellow officer Elise (Rae Gray), an aspiring country western singer. He's also on probation for an alcohol-related, seemingly racially charged traffic stop involving an underage student from a nearby university. The fallout from that earned him rebuke and landed him on the third shift under supervisor Trish (Lia D. Mortensen), who has a promotion riding on how well her overnight staff performs.

Aneisa J. Hicks plays Janelle, a young woman partly inspired by Naperville's Sandra Bland, in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "graveyard shift" by korde arrington tuttle.
Aneisa J. Hicks plays Janelle, a young woman partly inspired by Naperville's Sandra Bland, in Goodman Theatre's premiere of "graveyard shift" by korde arrington tuttle. - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

A less discerning writer might have demonized Brian, but tuttle doesn't -- not entirely. In this evenhanded account, tuttle's Brian evidences compassion and patience when he clears a raccoon family from the police station attic, but has none for a motorist who neglected to put on her turn signal.

That said, tuttle and director Danya Taymor remind us -- during a heart-pounding confrontation between Brian and Janelle -- that power rests with the cop wearing a badge and carrying a firearm, not the motorist holding a cigarette and a cellphone.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Beautifully and fearsomely acted by Hicks and Gallagher -- who stand in patches of light, their silhouettes looming behind them -- the scene unfolds masterfully, in a crescendo that left me breathless.

The haunting "graveyard shift" has several such moments. The writing is perceptive, if occasionally overstuffed; tuttle's dialogue (some of which comes verbatim from Bland's cellphone and Encinia's dashcam) has a languid lyricism that recalls early Lanford Wilson. He draws parallels between civilians Janelle and Kane and officers Elise and Brian (all in their late 20s), who share similar self-doubts and whose love affairs are similarly troubled. Elise describes herself as "sediment at the bottom of the creek that is this town." Brian confesses "the heart-shaped hole behind my badge will cave in" if she leaves him. Meanwhile, Janelle and Kane struggle to remain independent while staying committed to each other.

Danya Taymor directs Goodman Theatre's premiere of korde arrington tuttle's poetic drama "graveyard shift."
Danya Taymor directs Goodman Theatre's premiere of korde arrington tuttle's poetic drama "graveyard shift." - Courtesy of Liz Lauren

All of them, including supervisor Trish, are yearning, frustrated, resentful and unfulfilled. They express themselves in sometimes showy monologues seamlessly staged by Taymor and skillfully delivered by her rock-solid cast. Balogun's performance is deeply felt while Gallagher's reflects a fundamentally good-natured man whose iron heart and lack of self-control set a tragedy in motion.

Marcus Doshi's minimalist lighting produces maximum effect in Taymor's production, which includes a telling moment with universal application.

It occurs as Janelle and Kane pack up her apartment in preparation for her move to Texas. They carry off boxes labeled "books" and "kitchen" until one remains. It's marked "fragile."

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