Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see John's review of Jesus Christ Superstar
To Catch a Fish is based on real-life events that occurred not too far away (about 90 miles away, in Milwaukee) or too long ago (in 2012). That year, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) set up sting operations to catch illegal sellers of firearms in several cities across the country, including Milwaukee. The goal of reducing the number of guns on the street was admirable, but the program's execution was not. The ATF leased a vacant building in a stable residential block not too far from the city's African-American neighborhood and opened a store that purportedly sold sports apparel and athletic shoes. They let it be known, though, that their real interest was in buying guns on the black market. Over the course of the operation, which lasted less than a year, the ATF bought or confiscated 144 firearms and made 31 arrests, according to an article by The Washington Post. Yet, many of the firearms were bought from people who owned them legallyand the undercover agents in some cases paid more than retail prices for them.
Financial waste was hardly the gravest sin of the operation. Racial profiling and entrapment led some of the more vulnerable members of the African-American community to commit crimes, and Neveu's play focuses on the story of a mentally challenged young black man in that situation. That man is fictionalized and renamed in this play as Terry Kilbourna 21-year-old with the intelligence of an 8-year-old, due to a childhood brain injury. In To Catch a Fish, Terry has unwittingly been recruited to help the undercover agents, who he believes are running a legitimate store and are his friends. They hire him to distribute flyers around the African-American community to attract potential sellers of guns to the "store," but don't explain the real purpose behind their scheme until he's been working for them for a whileand even then, they don't fully explain. Somehowand Neveu's script is confusing on these pointsboth Terry and his non-impaired cousin Dontre fall into the agents' traps.
To Catch a Fish works well, if leisurely so, as a realistic drama of life in the inner city. Terry lives with his grandmother Brenda in a stable home neither affluent nor impoverished. Brenda has cared for Terry since the death of his mother and her nephew Dontre, Terry's cousin, visits often. Both Terry and Dontre have been convicted of crimes and have served some time, but Dontre is now working in an auto repair shop and Terry is thrilled to have his job with the "store" (even though the agents pay him with cigarettes and jerseys rather than money). This is a family who has endured much tragedy and as it turns out, the ATF's meddling into their community and their lives brings more. The bungled operation was meant to make this inner-city neighborhood safer, but when the government sees people of color as those to be prosecuted as well as those to be protected, they apparently have trouble telling the good guys from the bad guys. (They missed some of the bad guys, as well. In real life, as in the play, several guns are stolen from an agent's car and the "store" is broken into and looted, resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars of merchandise, guns and property damage).
The performances under the direction of Ron OJ Parson are strong. Linda Bright Clay is the tough and caring yet ultimately powerless grandmother Brenda. The sadness she carries over losing her children and fearing the loss of her grandsons is palpable. Geno Walker is a convincingly simple Terry, a sweet soul that lacks the mental ability to recognize and deal with problems and so can only deny them. Al'Jaleel McGhee's Dontre is a tragic figure, struggling (and failing) to do what's right in the face of pressures to find a solution to his financial problems. Tiffany Addison plays Rochelle Walker, Terry's older and non-challenged girlfriend, who works as a store clerk. Her attraction to the younger, mentally challenged Terry is not explained, but Addison's sensitive portrayal suggests she sees something in the man-boy that feels comforting, if not secure.
To Catch a Fish is told through the perspective of these civilians and is most effective as a window into their lives. Neveu reveals the true nature of the ATF sting gradually, but not clearly. Two of the three agents, Ike (Jay Worthington) and Dex (Stephen Walker), look sketchy from the start. A third agent, Regina "G" Whitman, played by AnJi White, is all business and less threatening. The two men seem dangerous, but as Neveu reveals their plot, it's never exactly clear how they expected this scheme to work or how they trapped Terry and Dontre into it. "G" appears to have been duped by Dex and Ike, but their plot is too convoluted or confusing to follow.
There's certainly a point to the play. As a story of good people struggling to survive under difficult-to-impossible circumstances, it's moving and important. As a docu-drama exposing an inept law enforcement operation that is shown to have caused real and unnecessary harm that must not be excused despite the program's best intentions and partial successes, it needs a lot more exposition.
To Catch a Fish, through July 1, 2018, at TimeLine Theatre, 615 West Wellington, Chicago IL. For tickets or further information, visit www.timelinetheatre.com or call 773-281-8463, ext. 6.