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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 22, 2016

Chokehold Cast
Photo by Albert Bonilla

The Huffington Post reports that close to 200 African Americans have been shot and killed by the police thus far in 2016. This is a sobering thought by any reckoning. It also serves as the underlying impetus for a newly-formed revolutionary group determined to put a stop to what many consider to be racially-motivated acts of police brutality, in Anthony P. Pennino's cogent play Chokehold now on view at The Theatre at the 14th Street Y.

This production, updated from an earlier version that won the top award for a new play at the 2015 Planet Connections Festivity, serves as a cry of frustration and rage for the committed and intelligent group of five who make up a loose coalition planning on kidnapping and executing a young white man on camera. They've already got their victim in custody, the hapless Devon (David Gow) whom one of them knows from their time together at Bard College. But they have yet to work out the details.

The organization is so new, its members can't even agree on what to call it (top contenders: the "No Justice, No Peace Liberation Army" and the "Justice Now Front"). The debate over the name is only one area of disagreement as they work through their not fully developed plan of action. Filmmaker Carter (Thomaz Mussnich), the only white member of the group, is set up and ready to go as the play opens, although he is so fussed about the lighting, he makes the two men dressed in police SWAT uniforms (Roland Lane as Jason and Michael Oloyede as Andre) do a second take as they drag Devon in and force him to strip to his briefs and read aloud a "confession" that he truly does not understand.

Moments like this instill some eerily dark humor into the proceedings and help keep the play from being in a constant state of tension. And while Chokehold most decidedly delivers a powerful message about racism in America, it equally focuses on issues of ethics, morality, and the nature of cold-blooded vengeance. Turns out, it is not all that easy to go through with killing an innocent person, regardless of the rationale. Carter's raison d'ĂȘtre falls more along the lines of that of a game-changing revolutionary, but for the rest (the two other members of the first-rate cast are Rokia Shearin as Dominque and Marija Juliette Abney as Tika), the stakes are personal. Each recounts a bit of their family stories, affronts, and shameful secrets as they try to decide whether they will go through with the killing.

Meanwhile, there is Devon, who changes before our eyes from a blubbering mess and a symbolic representative of casually complicit white America into a complex character for whom life in general makes little sense. He is an anxiety-filled young man, a walking "kick-me" sign who is bullied by his stepfather and spends most of his energy on figuring out how to be a people pleaser. While the others harangue him about his lack of understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is his very innocence that appeals to their sense of pure justice: an innocent white life in exchange for the innocent black lives lost.

This taut, 70-minute drama, so well acted under Tim Cusack's fine-tuned direction, eloquently captures the sense of unmitigated sorrow and helplessness that has gripped so many in this country, as day after day we witness the continuing racial strife and unfulfilled promises that haunt our history as a nation.

Through October 8
The Theatre at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street near the corner of 1st Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatre at the 14th Street Y

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