Local playwright Joel Beers ventures into the Kelly Thomas beating and its effects on the future of law enforcement in Fullerton and beyond.
The play has always been the most political form of art. Theme, plot, and satire can express a realm of larger concepts than the song or the painting can. So it is interesting to see a locally written political play that explores some of the issues of a local political event that has divided the local political community.
The arts community in Fullerton continues to explore the visceral horror of an unarmed defenseless man being beaten to death in full public view by the very agency sworn to protect the public. A series of art shows, rock concerts, and songs have been produced to explore and understand the meaning of the event that has shaken the city, divided the public, and overturned the city council.
Joel Beers’ reworking of “Hate” explores the motive forces behind a white supremacist group as represented by its leader, Mike Carpenter (Sean Hesketh), and its chief thug, "Jack" Jackson (Steven Sullivan).
Carpenter and Jackson are an archetypal pair. Jackson is the puppy-dog brute who depends on Carpenter to explain things. Carpenter is the revolutionary intellectual who exploits Jackson’s naiveté. Hesketh plays Carpenter like a well behaved Malcolm X, spit-firing the bullets of his ideology out of his mouth with perfect politeness, but with total disregard for their confrontational meaning. He says to Jackson, “You are not afraid to use your body to support your ideals. They’re afraid of that.” We see later why he puts so much stock in thuggery.
The pair is being held by the Fullerton police to investigate a local bombing which injured several people. The “Feds” have been called in since the case is classified as an act of domestic terrorism. In this case the Fed is DHS Special Agent Rivera (Laura Harper), a rising star in law enforcement. She wants not just to indict these two suspects but to bring down their whole organization, the Brotherhood. The case against them rests on some inflammatory remarks Carpenter made in speeches and in some promotional material published by the group, and on the subsequent minor assaults committed by former members of the Brotherhood.
The play investigates the limits of free-speech laws, and the politics of terrorist attacks. It takes a first crack at digesting the events of July 5th, 2011, the fatal beating of Kelly Thomas, but it tries to swallow it whole in the form of “class warfare.” The beating of Kelly Thomas is described as just another example of “the same hatred that fuels these white supremacists…” (from the promotional material).
But it is probably the attempt to frame the Kelly Thomas case as class warfare that kept the story off the front pages of local publications for months, while the killing of an unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin, became a feature of national nightly news and was commented on by the president within a month of his death. Popular media in the U.S. could not seem to focus on the Kelly Thomas case for more than a few minutes, probably because it did not fit into their narrative templates. “Hate” suffers, to some extent, from the same shortcomings, but there are some bright spots.
Most of the characters fit neatly into their class ideologies. Rivera is the uppity Hispanic female (or female Hispanic?) who can’t get the respect she has earned because of gender and race discrimination. The two Fullerton police officers, Kerrigan (Adam Poynter) and Burroughs (Aaron Campbell), are the bumbling detectives who think punching is the fastest way to get the truth out of someone, and who only hold their positions because of the privilege of their race (white). Mike Carpenter is the white supremacist idealogue who exploits Jack Jackson’s willingness to act. Carpenter says “America was founded on racism” and explains how this is what gave the U.S. its great power, as if we became the world’s greatest economic superpower by selling cotton. Carpenter tells us that everything that moves is a product of someone hating someone else and wanting to bonk them on the head and take their stuff. He sees all of mankind as nothing but conflicting forces of pressure-group warfare. He foments violence in the naïve to push the lines of skirmish as far out from himself as possible. “Mike never did none of the hittin’ himself,” Jackson tells us. And this is where the character of Jack Jackson comes in.
Sullivan plays Jackson as an impenetrably dense dolt, eager to jump into the fray before thinking, and who tells us “… the only time I feel right is when someone’s bleeding underneath me.” He doesn’t know why he needs this. He does know that “everyone else has someone else looking out for them, except white people!” He lists various minorities that are favored by various laws and institutions, and he shows that none of those systems favor him. Carpenter has told him this is a product of a self-centered society. Jackson says, “I’ve got no rights!” Carpenter provides him with the cause of the problem: It’s all the other classes that caused the problem. This is how he justifies Jackson’s brutish attacks.
We see Jackson enumerate the classes that are favored by government institutions. We see that he recognizes the shortcoming of this guiding principle, that every group (minority or class) that is favored by a law or institution results in another larger group that is disfavored. And we see that he recognizes that he is in the group that is least favored by these compensating laws and institutions. He is not part of the white privileged class and is quite poor, but he is not protected by any of the compensating laws. It is unclear if this is what the author intended to point out. The main villain is hobbled by the same blind-spot and only arrives at the solution of push back harder.
It’s easy to see how the media had so much trouble understanding the Kelly Thomas case when it is so difficult to frame as class struggle. The play makes several references to the police handling of that case, but it fails to illustrate how a Hispanic police officer beating a white homeless man from a middle-class O.C. family is an example of class struggle, or that it is just another instance of “the same hatred that fuels these white supremacists.”
The performance is fast paced. The actors cover a lot of ground in a short time, and there are some themes which I have not covered in this article. Director Barney Evans was interested in how the advent of constant monitoring, which heavily affected the Kelly Thomas case, will affect police enforcement, which is explored in the play.
"Hate" is playing at 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 15 at Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave. (714) 525-4484.