One of the first rules of investigating: You can’t see what’s not there. It doesn’t mean that the absent thing isn’t important; sometimes the gap is the clue. But it’s hard to sense … nothing. It took me dozens of years of watching plays, for instance, before I realized that something’s missing from the way our theater reflects our nation: There’s a hole in the picture where the cops should be.
Despite the universal presence of police in the rest of the narrative arts — fiction, nonfiction, television, podcast, stand-up, documentary, film — the American drama has mostly, for the last 40 years, averted its eyes from law enforcement. Elsewhere in the media, everything is a crime that needs to be solved, but U.S. drama just … skips that part. We barely have plays about the lives of police, nor the history of police, nor the abuses, nor the paradoxes, nor the mechanisms of police. Somehow, the theater, which is itself a crystallization of civic qualities (community gathering, collective imagining, public debate, values sharing), has not bent itself toward the fraught question of how the state deploys one armed citizen against another.
Even from a purely commercial point of view, this seems like leaving money on the table. Is it merely because a police story is difficult to stage from a practical perspective? Or perhaps there’s a class difference — a snobby “that stuff’s just for TV” bias? Case-of-the-week stories are welcomed into our living rooms because home is where we crave security and reassurance; the couch is certainly a good place to consume cozy fictions about fairness and swift justice and easily identifiable bad guys.
So, okay, we don’t have Law and Order: Backstage Crimes Unit on Broadway. That makes a certain aesthetic sense. We’ve learned to associate regulation with the surveilling lens: body cams, dashcams, webcams, nanny cams, security cams, mug shots, crime-scene photographs. Over the years, the eye of the enforcer has been conflated with the single, “objective” eye of the camera, rather than the messy, look-where-you-want world of live theater. But the modern U.S. theater doesn’t just avoid the POV procedural. It avoids putting the police onstage at all, whether as heroes or victims or villains or fools.
It was not always this way. For a long slice of theatrical history, cops were onstage all the time because cops meant comedy. Policemen in the popular imagination were upside-down figures, pretend soldiers, a reminder of the inherent disorder of things: Here were men from the “lower classes” asked to discipline their “betters.” That inversion historically struck playwrights as ridiculous and even adorable. (Whenever a busybody beadle enters a Shakespeare play, a beadles-are-idiots joke is not far away.) For more than a hundred years, Keystone-style Kops came on the American stage just to fall over their own feet: The investigators in You Can’t Take It With You (1936) couldn’t see through tissue-thin lies; detectives bumbled cheerfully around Arsenic and Old Lace (1939); as late as 1988, officers of the law in Neil Simon’s throwback comedy Rumors were being reluctantly bamboozled by upper-crust doofuses in evening dress.
So when the mainstream theater started to admit darker visions, the image of a policeman was already funny, and thus easily converted to a symbol of the existentially absurd. Theater’s prime absurdist, the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco, wrote many pieces featuring policemen, intertwining their paradoxical combination of bureaucratic apathy and licensed sadism to bleakly comic effect. In his urban satire The Killer (1958), for instance, a bossy lieutenant protects politeness rather than life, tut-tutting about etiquette as the hero pleads with him. (Ionesco knew whereof he wrote: His abusive father was a Nazi sympathizer who worked for the Bucharest police.) Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’s Officer Krupke in West Side Story (1957) treads this narrow line between silliness and menace, too. Krupke is a figure of fun for Riff and the others — he’s slower than they are, mentally and physically, and they dance out of his reach. Still, the musical knows who will live longer.
Then came the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In 1965, Bloody Sunday was on every television screen, on every front page. All that leavening comedy and silliness was blasted away by fire hoses; the paradigmatic image of the American policeman became a trooper with a club. If you’re looking for the plays about those kinds of cops, you won’t have read them in your theater class, and they aren’t revived much — but they do exist. During the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, writers like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, Jimmy Garrett, and Ed Bullins wrote great fistfuls of plays, many of them explicitly influenced by Ionesco, that knew all about Selma and Harlem and Detroit and Oakland. Some were realistic accounts of racial profiling or overpolicing; others were lyrical works, brutal and swift, full of expressionist gunplay, stylized tableaux, and monstrously clownlike cops. Theater historian Mike Sell described one of Sanchez’s plays, The Bronx Is Next, as a “masque of violence.” Baraka was himself beaten by the police during the 1967 Newark rebellion, and his play Police, a symbolist farce, ends with a bacchanal, a chorus of white officers dancing around a Black cop, tearing off and eating gobbets of his flesh.
It wasn’t only the small, by-us-for-us theaters producing this work either. Melvin Van Peebles’s genre-exploding Broadway musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) saw street life clearly, from a perspective beneath the policeman’s baton. But a decade of underinvestment, careers that slewed either toward poetry (Sanchez, Baraka) or film (Van Peebles), and the BAM’s own vicissitudes let much of that work drain into the sand. Theater’s memory is extremely short. Something — we know what it was — kept Sanchez and Bullins out of the anthologies of mainstream American drama. And in the U.S., if it isn’t taught, it isn’t remembered.
Since the 1970s, the story of American theater has been one of division and gentrification, the rise of the (often white-led) nonprofit theater, and the ascendancy of the trained and professionalized playwright, who, whatever her original background, has been moved up several social rungs via an MFA. Of course, beautiful and important and diverse work can and does come out of those structures. But these structures also insulate a person from contact or conflict with the police. The academy teaches craft and discipline, but it also relocates and recastes people, ensuring ignorance of certain kinds of labor, certain lives-as-they’re-lived. So. We wind up with an avalanche of American plays about the ivory tower — but fewer than a dozen about the beat.
And the irony is, when a playwright does write that rare play about the fuzz, it’s extraordinary in some way. You can’t say the theater isn’t suited to cop stories: Sometimes, the police play is the peak in a career; occasionally, it’s the writer’s first or lone theatrical success. Here, according to my research (two stars) and murky memory (one star) are the post-1980 American plays produced in New York about the cops: Dennis McIntyre’s all-but-disappeared Split Second (1984), Tracy Letts’s lurid debut Killer Joe (1993), Adrienne Kennedy’s enraging Sleep Deprivation Chamber (1996), Kenneth Lonergan’s sly Lobby Hero (2001), Kia Corthron’s empathetic Force Continuum (2001), Keith Huff’s blockbuster A Steady Rain (2007), Christopher Demos-Brown’s heartbroken American Son (2016), and Antoinette Nwandu’s Beckettian Pass Over (2018). Fans of New York’s experimental theater will also remember the Debate Society’s sweetly hilarious Buddy Cop 2 (2010) and Temporary Distortion’s multimedia Newyorkland (2012), but I think their Off–Off audiences may have been small enough that they didn’t enter the wider cultural conversation. They were both gorgeous though.
So what do we learn from these hen’s-teeth instances when the current American theater does grapple with the police?
For one thing, the theatrical medium fights the lionizing effect. Film and TV narratives make even corrupt cops into POV characters, flawed and absorbing and sympathetic (click here for 13 Corrupt Cops on Film We Love to Hate!). But the theater organizes the audience like a jury — we sit in rows, aware of the other minds in the room, weighing testimony. Live audiences don’t zoom in close to vicariously join a bad lieutenant on his naughty adventures; we see him whole, from a distance. Copaganda fantasy has a hard time facing that kind of communal witness. I count only two instances of prodigal-police storytelling: Killer Joe (a cop-by-day-assassin-by-night Texploitation tale) and A Steady Rain. The latter play’s moral proposal — one partner takes a single anti-racism training, which turns him to the path of the good cop, while the other refuses, guaranteeing his flameout and death — is a little goofy, but it is exactly the sort of comforting, reform-is-easy attitude that prints money at the box office. (It set records.) To make it work as a play, though, it needed two movie stars (Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman) to sit in chairs telling stories of police malfeasance rather than acting them out. If the little boy their characters menace had actually walked onstage, the show would have ripped like wet paper.
Second, the theater, given the chance, makes a great place to think through policing. Split Second, Force Continuum, and Lobby Hero all grapple with the effect our American relationship with authority has on our ability to form ethical codes. In particular, Corthron’s drama tessellates a whole mosaic of intergenerational interactions and models of policing, deeply influenced, she told me, by long conversations with working policemen and -women. You can sense the play arguing with itself — “By the time I had finished the play,” she says, “I no longer thought it was a play about police brutality; I thought of it as more about the relationship between the NYPD and the Black community.” (The play is 19 years old, yet could have been written yesterday; simply substitute the details of Amadou Diallo’s killing with Eric Garner’s.) In a lighter vein but with similarly chilling implications, Lobby Hero is a moral quadrilateral formed by a bluff white patrolman, his rookie partner, a persuadable white security guard, and that guard’s weary Black supervisor. Where Corthron’s subject is the erosion of good intentions, Lonergan’s is the corrosive quality of the badge. All four characters in Lobby Hero wear one kind of uniform or another, the two younger ones trying, disastrously, to “earn” theirs. Authoritarianism is the real devil, Lonergan argues, and its partner, self-righteous self-regard.
Third, the theater’s a place that turns that thinking (“policing has gone wrong”) into physical sensation. Adrienne Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber is the living nightmare, a collage of dreamscape disorientations and her son (and co-writer) Adam’s actual arrest and beating by the police. The play dazes you with the victim’s experience of policing, the nauseating mix of documented fact with hallucinatory unreality. And while recent American Son has only one emotional key, it turns it and turns it. A woman arrives at a police station asking about her son, and we know instantly what must have happened. Our certainty is repulsive: For the play’s entire duration, we have to grapple with our complicity. How can we bear living in a country where we take for granted that a police encounter will kill a Black man? Why aren’t we rioting that very minute? The show forces us to sit still as we watch, and our own immobility grows more painful with each passing second.
Then there’s Nwandu’s eerie, furious, hypnotic Pass Over. (Here is a play that you can watch even during the pandemic; Spike Lee filmed the Steppenwolf production, and it’s available on Amazon.) Nwandu’s play repurposes Waiting for Godot for two young Black men on the corner: Just like Samuel Beckett’s metaphysically immobilized Vladimir and Estragon, Moses and Kitch plan on “gittin’ up off dis block” but do not move. In Nwandu’s version, though, the pair isn’t waiting for a savior. Instead, they’re visited by the grinning Mister — a golly-gee-shucks sort of white man, who so wishes they wouldn’t say the N-word — and a cop called Ossifer. Mister and Ossifer are played by the same actor, so you never see them onstage together. But they’re like the two hands of a person playing cat’s cradle: As the two white men shuttle back and forth across Kitch and Moses’s corner, they weave a paralyzing, murderous social net.
I spoke to Nwandu about putting Ossifer in her play. For a long time and many drafts, in fact, she didn’t. “I was advised by a lot of well-meaning people that the second a cop walked onstage with these two young Black boys, the audience would get ahead of it,” she says. “They’d think, Ah, he’s the villain; this will end poorly.” A policeman’s image-weight seemed, to them, too heavy for the play. This sort of advice, which took Nwandu years to ignore, is one reason why we have so few cops in current plays. Yet another fear operates inside the process itself. “Every time I’m in a rehearsal room,” Nwandu says, “the white actor goes through their own come-to-Jesus time, since they have to both embody the character’s full humanity (‘this is a person who has a job’) and the larger symbol (‘this is evil’).” She’s not interested in Ossifer being a cartoon. She insists that “even in this violence, that person is not a monster. He’s a human being doing monstrous things.” This embodiment issue is also a reason for theatrical avoidance. Other plays discuss the victims of the racist justice system, as Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size does, or police killings, as do Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down and James Ijames’s Kill Move Paradise. But no one in those plays has to play the cop.
And, now that we’ve noticed it, the important thing about police plays is their absence. The frenzy of cop content everywhere else might show us fantasies, but the drama’s relative silence reflects the truth: a collective, 40-year-long reluctance to talk about how we keep order. We don’t need more “hero cop” stories in other media. We have seen how 50 years of television’s narrative rhythms have materially damaged justice: Juries believe wobbly forensic evidence (thanks to CSI), overidentify with police departments, and see official abuses as either necessary or roguish. But I’d argue that we do need more police stories on our stages. A play thinks “the long thought”: It asks a captive audience to work through complicated and contradictory issues over a full evening. And for the most part, Americans of a certain type — the same type that goes to the theater — haven’t wanted to think about the police. But someday we’ll be back in a theater again. And we’ll need to get all this thinking center stage, where it belongs.