A Raw and Ugly Greek Tragedy Set in the Ghetto

TIM BAKER

April 06, 1992|By TIM BAKER

I dare you to go see ''Police Boys,'' a new play which Center Stage has the guts to produce. It'll make you uncomfortable. Even scare you. But don't worry. It only runs through April 17. So you'll be able to think up a reason why you can't get around to seeing it.

You won't like it anyway. The surreal big city police station brutalizes you. The relentless foul-mouthed language rages. It rips at your sensibilities. The pressures pound on the characters. They drive each other through a violent plot to a merciless ending.

Then when it's finally over, you'll hurry along Calvert Street to your car and head home to the safety of suburbia. My God, you'll ask yourself, is that what's really happening in black urban America?

A black teen-age gang, ironically called the Police Boys, terrorizes the city. Black police officers try to contain the fury on .. the streets. But it erupts in their own precinct station. A 14-year-old black boy is brought in for the savage rape and murder of a white woman jogger. Remind you of Central Park?

The police believe the boy committed the crime to satisfy the gang's initiation requirement. They want him to implicate the gang's leader, named Big Bed. If the boy won't do it, they threaten to send him to the gas chamber -- ''An Equal Opportunity Employer,'' as one cop tells the kid. A voter initiative has just repealed the prohibition against capital punishment for juveniles.

The moral order of the police station begins to disintegrate. The officers' own violent relationships haunt their work. They struggle with each other as they interrogate the boy, who taunts them with his crude and slicing ridicule.

Each police officer embodies a different voice and viewpoint. Their own fights over what to do with the boy turn into a battle for the soul of the black community. Captain Jabali believes that only discipline can save his people. He wants to impose the same rigid regime that he enforces in the police station. He regards the boy as a beast to be destroyed -- or cruelly and illegally used to get the gang leader.

Comanche, a lost and wounded man, has just returned to the force. He searches for the truth in the dark corners of Voodoo blood rituals. He tries to befriend and protect the boy in a desperate attempt to rediscover his own sense of humanity. He questions the black community's own responsibility. ''This is not about the white man any more.''

A female sergeant confronts the men with their own inadequacies. These boys, she says, are ''crying for somebody to help change their lives like a baby crying for his Daddy. You all need to answer that cry, man. You at least gotta do that.''

The kid, Royal Boy, is an orphan searching for a haven in this empty and frightening world. He's learned the hard rules of the street. ''Some people get smoked, and some do the smoking.'' As a member of the gang, at least he feels like he belongs to something, even after Big Bed betrays him by taking away his girlfriend, the mother of his child. The boy is doomed. Captain Jabali warns him, ''Don't underestimate your bad luck.''

As a play, ''Police Boys'' is overwritten and overwrought. The problem is not the foul language. You can't expect Disney dialogue in the ghetto. The torrent of obscenities actually works dramatically. It creates the violent atmosphere. But too many words and too much frenzy bury the characters and blur the play's focus.

The problem may be that the playwright, Marion Isaac McClinton, also directs this production. Most writers find it difficult to cut their own material. But, as Faulkner said, ''you must learn to kill all your darlings.'' This play needs a skilled and ruthless editing.

Underneath too many words and too many fights, however, beats the heart of a mighty drama. The play is a Greek tragedy in the ghetto where circumstances push people to push other people and themselves too far until there is no longer any sane or safe way out.

Despite its flaws, ''Police Boys'' achieves the important objective of putting a human face on this country's growing black urban agony. Today a young African-American male is more likely to go to prison than to college. He is seven times more likely to be murdered than a white boy. In parts of downtown Baltimore, he is more likely to be killed than an American soldier was in Vietnam. Men in Bangladesh have a better chance of living past age 40. In Baltimore, 20 percent of black babies die in the first year of life. Two thirds of them live in single-parent families. A growing percentage are orphans living in ''zero-parent'' families.

Of course, self-destructive conduct contributes heavily to these consequences. But America's growing and increasingly violent underclass is disproportionately black because of an unlucky historical coincidence. African-Americans migrated to cities just when manufacturing jobs began to disappear from urban areas.

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