Drama bares urban violence

WILEY A. HALL 3rd.

April 02, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd.

For well over two hours, "Police Boys," the new play at Center Stage, is right up in our faces -- bellowing with rage, writhing with anger, throbbing with the pent-up, pressure-cooker energy that so often explodes into urban violence.

It is by no means a flawless drama.

Playwright Marion Isaac McClinton has included so many different themes, so many story lines, that the action often becomes hard to follow.

He bounces too freely between the real and the surreal.

He piles tragedy upon tragedy to the degree that the audience begins to become numb by it all; indifference builds in us like a wall.

But then urban violence is like that, isn't it?

"Police Boys" is the story of 14-year-old Royal Boy, who is being interrogated by police for the rape and murder of a jogger.

Police suspect the assault was part of an initiation rite for a street gang, the Police Boys, and they are leaning on Royal Boy to name his accomplices.

For Royal Boy, of course, silence is part of the street gang code of honor. At the same time, however, all of the police officers are black, most of them are men, and they are giving him more personal attention than he has ever had before.

How does the 1970s song go -- "Seems like I've gotta do wrong, before they notice me"?

Royal Boy revels in the attention. You get the sense that the verbal jousting match with the police officers is the most fun he has ever had in his life.

This is when the play works best, when it portrays the tug of war between the police and the gang for Royal Boy's soul.

When we first see him, Royal Boy is the most engaging character on the stage. He is cocky, clever, even charming. We like him. We want him to be saved.

But the fact is, it is too late. The tug of war for his soul is actually a mock battle, because, as a suspect in a brutal rape and murder, Royal Boy is finished as a free man. He is getting so much attention from police because he has information they need.

The play doesn't really make this explicit, but in the real world there is no mercy for rapists and murderers.

Once you've done that, your soul is beyond saving. You have fallen down and there is no getting up.

These themes are not new, of course.

The causes of urban violence have been explored sociologically, politically and economically. Increasingly, with movies such as "Boyz N the Hood" and dramatic works such as "Police Boys," they are being explored artistically as well.

You want to know about pain and anger and alienation? Pick up almost any rap album.

So, we know that many of these kids are bright. We know that they have the potential to succeed if only they could be convinced that success is possible. We know about their lack of self-esteem and estrangement from mainstream America.

We even know that all they really need is a strong role model to guide and nurture them. And although it may not seem so, there are more strong, successful black males today than ever before.

So why, in an era of unprecedented advancement and opportunity, is there so much hopelessness and despair among the young?

One answer is that the Royal Boys are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Most black teen-agers do not pillage and rape, even though they are just as likely to have been born into a single-parent family and are exposed to equal degrees of despair.

Still, most young men, even now, are marshaling whatever resources that are available to them and are positioning themselves to take advantage of whatever opportunities they can find. Single parents are bolstered by grandparents and other members of their extended family. Churches bolster their self-esteem despite the negative images that abound in society.

When the majority of them stumble, there is a coterie of teachers and uncles and clergymen, and even police officers, on hand to lift them up again.

That is a fundamental truth that we must never forget, although it is seldom acknowledged.

But the implacable urban reality is that one tortured kid with a gun can endanger 20 hard-working kids with textbooks. The mission is to fight for their souls before they kill.

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