Opening night of the Black Theatre Workshop’s Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of! by Omari Newton evoked names and faces many still recall: Anthony Griffin, Marcellus François, Rohan Wilson, Fredy Villanueva—young men who had everything to live for but died in their prime in encounters with Montreal police.
We’ve heard the story before. The victims are guilty of a minor infraction or of nothing whatsoever, a gun goes off and in the long run the incident is chalked up to an unfortunate/unavoidable accident. In the end, no criminal charges are laid and no one is held accountable.
Much blood and ink have been spilled since Griffin’s death in 1987, with the number of fatalities during arrest or in custody rising to well over 60, according to the Coalition contre la repression et les abus policiers. Some say the cause is racial profiling, while others, like Henry Aubin of The Gazette, suggest it is a lack of appropriate training of police in restraining terrified or mentally ill individuals. Invariably, police say they felt threatened, and, in seeming panic, shot to kill. For the last 17 years, a protest march has been held every spring against police brutality, resulting in more violence and more arrests.
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Until now, to my knowledge, no one has created art out of this ubiquitous yet heartbreaking reality, and no one gave a voice to the young people left behind, who are permanently injured following the shooting of a good friend.
“I was inspired to examine the theme between police and youth,” says playwright and actor Omari Newton, who grew up in affluent Kirkland and remembers police following him right up to his parents’ driveway. “My parents are two rational, thinking people who told me to be polite, to be respectful to police, so it never escalated to something dangerous.” Newton characterizes the experience as unsettling and unnerving, which he allowed because “I would rather feel violated than get shot.”
When he heard of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s shooting in Florida in February, he says he wasn’t surprised, but was deeply affected. “The anger and hopelessness lasted for days. I didn’t know the kid, my only connection was that another person of colour was being shot and no one held accountable.”
The superb cast, including Letitia Brookes, Tristan D. Lalla, Kim Villagante, Jordan Waunch, and veteran Cree actor Billy Merasty, deliver powerful performances as members of an aspiring multiracial rap band caught in the aftermath of a police shooting.
Their unstoppable energy and fearlessness embody the fundamental innocence of youth, and bring home—like a slap in the face—the obscene waste of precious human potential that occurs in such incidents. Anger and violence are discussed and through the character of Jewel, Newton brings up what he calls hip-hop’s problematic relationship with women. “Jewel represents a largely under-appreciated and under-represented minority in hip-hop.”
Newton remembers friends who have died, joined gangs or are living in poverty. “There is a great sense of nihilism among youth of colour. If your prospects of getting a job are dim, you’re stuck in a cycle of welfare and poverty, the future for you is very bleak. When actions are limited, you resort to desperate measures.”
The essence of the tragedy in this play is captured in its last three words.
This play has the potential to become an indispensible educational tool in generating dialogue between seemingly opposing camps—and in so doing to save lives. And if you think that music must be acoustic and melodic, as in Bach and the Beatles, go and see this play. The raw force of rap will surprise you and move you, at least in this context, to tears.