By Deborah Wong
In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, UCR Professor Rickerby Hinds organized a special, free presentation of his play Dreamscape and moderated a post-performance panel discussion that addressed the relationship between police and the Black community. The event took place on Friday, July 26, 2013, in the UCR Studio Theater, hosted by the Department of Theatre.
Dreamscape depicts the death and inner life of a young woman, “Myeisha Mills,” who dreams though the impact of the twelve bullets that kill her. The play is a meditation and reimagining of the night of December 28, 1998, when nineteen-year-old Tyisha Miller was shot and killed by four Riverside Police Department officers while she lay unconscious in a car. Hinds has spent years revisiting this painful, historic event.
The staging for Dreamscape features only two actors, two chairs, and one hand-held mic. The play opens with Myeisha seated, staring at the audience. We don’t know it yet, but she’s sitting in the car on the night of December 28th. She asks,
Ever have one of those dreams
Where nothing comes out when you try to scream?
Christmas was three days ago
Jingle Bells and ho, ho, ho
This ain’t gon’ be one-o-those feel-good shows
Just so you know
Dreamscape isn’t a feel-good play: it takes a powerfully clear-eyed look at the relationships between race, the body, and violence. The play is structured around an autopsy report recited by a dispassionate coroner. As each of the twelve bullet wounds is described in horrifying clinical detail—the damage done to the arm, shoulder, scalp, teeth, thigh, neck, back, breast, eye, mouth, skull—Myeisha reminisces about her life, using each body part as a jumping off point. She describes the pleasures of softball, dancing, kissing, and hair styling with sweetness, humor, and all the cheekiness of a nineteen-year-old. Listening to her enjoyments and hopes is seductive: you begin to forget that she’s dead, and you begin to listen simply for the pleasure of listening to her, so each time the coroner describes another bullet wound, we are shoved back into the reality of the trauma, re-living and re-experiencing it over and over. The body of Tyisha Miller is both broken apart and reintegrated through Hinds’ writing.
The casting for the show was deeply effective. Rhaechyl Walker played Myeisha with stunning physicality. Her ability to shift between everyday teenaged talk into rhapsodic hip-hop oratory was hugely enjoyable and often exhilarating. Her dance skills are formidable. Choreographer Carrie Mikuls combined hip-hop and modern dance into a seamless yet crisp expressive language that Walker handled effortlessly. The choreography forces the viewer to see Myeisha as a set of embodied experiences and as a body made up out of separate parts, each grievously injured.
John “Faahz” Merchant was a brooding presence on stage throughout, beatboxing intermittently and offering a kind of Greek chorus commentary. He shape-shifted between the coroner, the 911 operator, a guy at a club who dances joyously with Myeisha, and then stepped forward horrifyingly as one of the four Riverside Police Department officers who killed Tyisha Miller. The dense virtuosity of Merchant’s beatboxing filled in the spaces between the violent reality of the bullets and Myeisha’s dreamt memories, sometimes as the thumping soundscape of a dance club and sometimes as an MC’s commentary. Merchant moved fluently between percussive techniques, vocal turntablism, and the occasional ripped sample as he slipped in and out of the coroner’s report, wielding the mic as the officer’s baton and finally, irrevocably, as a gun.
Hinds has done his homework. The cold language of the autopsy report (taken directly from the actual Riverside coroner’s report for Tyisha Miller) and the actual testimony of Officer Daniel Hotard becomes the theater of the real in Dreamscape. Hinds has brilliantly turned the raw stuff of Tyisha Miller’s death into a poetic, choreographic meditation on a young African American woman’s inner life. The wound of that loss is thus re-experienced by the audience over and over again as the evening proceeds: the more we learn about Myeisha, the more she literally comes to life, and the more the repeated fact of her death shocks.
Dreamscape is solidly situated in the Riverside’s landscape, featuring sensuous descriptions of Gram’s Mission Barbecue food and the atmosphere in Rubidoux’s Club Metro. Riverside was Myeisha’s world, and Hinds recreates the local with care and deep affection. Yet this is far more than a ‘local’ play. Just as Susan Straight’s novels make Riverside (“Rio Seco,” as she calls it) into a place simultaneously local and universal, so Hinds’ evocation of the “IE” through Myeisha’s family, friends, loves, and daily pleasures creates a landscape at once precise, intimate, and uniquely Southern Californian, and also a horrifying summation of a profoundly racialized American city.
At a certain point in the play, you know that it can only come full circle—you know she will end up back in the car, that there really isn’t any other way to end the play except to return to the body robbed of speech and testimony. Hinds has not only opened up and extended the power of hip-hop theater but also offers a history lesson reconstituting what was shattered on December 28, 1998, and he does so without allowing us to forget that Tyisha Miller is, in fact, lost to us.
Hinds has worked on Dreamscape since 2005. I have seen it four times, first at the UCR Califest Fifth Annual Hip-Hop Theatre Festival in 2007, where it was staged much more elaborately, with a couch, table, a DJ’s station (complete with two turntables and laptop), and projected anatomical drawings of the human body. That staging began and ended with Myeisha lying on the autopsy table covered with a sheet. The current staging couldn’t be simpler, more pared down, or more effective. The stage is bare save for two folding chairs; the only prop is the beatboxer’s microphone. Myeisha’s dancing offers a less realist but more allusive depiction of the body (as memory and as embodied commentary) than the agit prop gesture of ‘showing’ the audience the death at the center of the play. My only concern about Dreamscape’s changes over time is that Hinds has sometimes distanced himself a bit from the fraught racial politics surrounding Tyisha Miller’s death. In a 2012 post-show discussion (also at UCR, attended by 500 people), he preferred to talk about the play rather than the real community pain upon which the play is based and which it re-engages. He has removed parts of the actual officers’ interviews, formerly included in the 2007 script, that revealed their attempts to describe the victim as the aggressor and their denial of well-documented displays of racist bravado by some officers at the scene. The 2007 script contained this passage, for instance:
At no time before, during, or after the shooting incident, did I laugh, make a “whooping” sound, slap another officer or anyone on the back, or high-five any officer after the incident. I was very distressed that the occupant had armed herself, forcing me to use deadly force.
That passage is now gone, and while the current script fully engages with the visceral ferocity of Myeisha’s death, it doesn’t refer, for instance, to the racialized reality of RPD officers who described Tyisha Miller’s grieving relatives at the scene as “animals having a Kwanzaa celebration.” The current script shies away from anything very specific about why the officers responded in the way that they did. Still, Myeisha wryly acknowledges that being Black is risky:
Soon’s I hear the cops’ sirens the first thing pop in my mind
“Man I wish I was a white girl” or at least a little lighter than I am
Not white in the “I can flip my hair” and “I ain’t got no booty” kind-a way
But in the “Officer, officer can you help me” kind-a way
In the “Hey young lady are you okay” kind-a way
In the “Do you need a ride somewhere you look lost” kind-a way
In short, we witness Myeisha dying while black but see little of the police attitudes that resulted in community outrage, a year of protests and demonstrations, the creation of the Community Police Review Commission, and a five-year consent decree for the Riverside Police Department. Certainly I don’t think Dreamscape can or should address all that. Hinds’ decision to stage Dreamscape in response to the Zimmerman verdict makes his intentions clear. If theater is a tool for liberation, then we must “find the places where the arts intersect with real life,” as Hinds put it when introducing the play last week.
All the talent in this production—Rhaechyl Walker, John “Faahz” Merchant, Carrie Mikuls, and Hinds himself—is local, home-grown, and at a national level of professionalism and skill. All four have roots in the Inland region but you don’t have to look hard to see that they’re contenders.
The panel discussion featured Dr. E.M. Abdulmumin, Woodie Rucker-Hughes, and Alexander Hinds (the playwright’s twenty-year-old son). Audience members were eager to talk about Trayvon Martin. A woman in the audience asked the actors whether they were thinking about Martin while they performed and Rhaechyl Walker simply said, “Yes—this is the wound that never closes.” An African American woman described watching her children become adults, saying “I thank God my son has made it to forty, but when he turned eighteen I thought, you are now a grown Black man who people will fear.” An African American man observed that “it’s a new era of Black genocide, and all available systems are failing us.” Sitting in the audience, Calvin Freeman (chief investigator for the Riverside County public defender) said he wanted to “shield” his twin children, now undergraduates at UCR, because “things don’t change,” but he carries the burden of knowing that he won’t be able to protect them. Larry Geraty (former president of La Sierra University) described watching Fox News after the verdict broke and said, “We really do live in a racist society. Something is really wrong in our country.” Several audience members called for local dialogues on the implications of the Zimmerman verdict.
Dreamscape will hopefully go on national tour, and its meanings will necessarily expand as it travels. This play and the story behind it have deep local meaning for Riversiders, and to see the play right here, and to watch it surrounded by other community members, offered us a powerful chance to think, together, about the very terms for local history and memory. I am sorry to say that I fully expect Riverside will need repeated stagings of Dreamscape as the years go on, but it served a powerful purpose last week when helped the community respond to the violent injustice of Trayvon Martin’s death.
Deborah Wong is Professor of Music at UCR and Co-Chair of the Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability.