Review Fix chats with Stop and Frisk playwright Matthew Widman, who discusses the production and its part in the Spotlight-On Festival.
About the Production:
An evening of social justice as seen through the word of the playwright and lens of the camera with STOP AND FRISK: Matthew Widman’s play about the consequences of one of our nation’s most contentious policing tactics and IS ANYBODY LISTENING?: Paula Caplan’s powerful documentary about a woman’s journey connecting with the plight of veterans. Another play with war as its focus, IN MEMORIAM, will also be shown that evening.
April 22 @ 8:00 pm; April 23 @ 5:30pm; April 25@ 5:30 pm
Part of the SPOTLIGHT-ON FESTIVAL at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, NYC.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Matthew Widman: As a storyteller it starts with something striking me, sometimes randomly – an idea or a character or a situation – something that I find moving or infuriating or evocative or fascinating. Then all the other story elements start falling into place around it. It becomes a bit of an obsession in the sense that I’ll always be working on multiple story ideas simultaneously until I’ve got enough of a foundation to commit to one – and then I’ll dive in completely and build the full structure for a play, fleshing out the characters more fully, outlining the plot and creating a first draft. I’m fortunate to be part of Donna De Matteo’s great writing workshop at HB Studio – so I can hear a draft read by terrific actors and get feedback from fellow writers. That’s an invaluable part of the process. And then the rewriting begins. And the rewriting…
Review Fix: What makes this [play] different or special?
Widman: This play is a fictional composite of a real time “stop and frisk” police encounter. It was drawn from recorded events, articles, interviews, personal accounts and from my own experiences. With the play I try to give a human face to this widely practiced policing tactic. But while there is a documentary element to the play – in that I’ve been careful to construct a fictionalized story and situation that could occur – it’s the dramatic conceits of theater, being “live” in a dark room with four amazing actors – that give the piece it’s immediacy and intensity.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Widman: This was an interesting challenge for me. As a writer I usually work from the inside out, starting with character and organically building story through the motivations of the characters as they’re faced with a dramatic situation. In this case, it was the opposite. I started with an issue I felt strongly about, then had the challenges of how to humanize the issue, give it some dramatic structure and build a story that felt organic and true to life without being preachy or polemical. Ultimately, even though it’s a short piece, this is a play about people – not about policy.
Review Fix: How does it feel to be a part of something like this?
Widman: It’s really a great privilege to be part of the Spotlight On Festival – and to be part of the American Stories/Forgotten Voices program with two wonderful filmmakers, Paula Caplan and Cynthia Granville, and their powerful films about the experiences of American military veterans.
For my play, Stop and Frisk, I’m working with four very talented and dedicated actors – Pharaoh King Champion, Paul Eisemann, Lenny Thomas and Jed Peterson. It’s an extremely combative and physical piece and the rehearsal work has been demanding and intense. The play is about a lot of things – but ultimately, it’s a piece that highlights the combustible elements of power and dominance that often tend to boil to the surface in these very male types of confrontations.
I’m incredibly grateful to my longtime collaborator Gwynn MacDonald for directing the play and lending her incredible insights and vision. Gwynn always pushes for the best in theatre – and has really taken us with her and brought this play to another level.
Review Fix: What are your ultimate goals for this production and for the future?
Widman: We’re looking to bring Stop and Frisk to community centers, churches, other festivals – places where it can spark dialogue and discussion and awareness – especially in white and non-urban neighborhoods.
We have a very engaged and racially diverse cast who have had their own personal experiences with this issue. While technically this is a policing and constitutional rights matter, but because this tactic has been deployed so dramatically and disproportionally in minority neighborhoods it’s become a racial issue as well. For folks in these neighborhoods, the use and abuse of these police stops can be a very real part of daily life. Conversely, in many neighborhoods that aren’t heavily policed, it’s very easy to imagine the implementation of this tactic abstractly, with the term “stop and frisk” erroneously becoming synonymous with the idea of “law and order” (as so well evidenced by the rhetoric of this most recent presidential campaign).
For those of us not facing the prospect of being constantly stopped in our own neighborhoods, it’s very hard to get a real sense about how invasive and corrosive this can be – how the abuse of this tactic generates understandable hostility toward the police and breaks down vital community trust with law enforcement. This play tries to help better image that.
A bit of statistical history: In New York City, at its peak in 2011, the police stopped 685,724 New Yorkers, with 88 percent being totally innocent (NYACLU from NYPD Statistics). That’s a huge number of people.
In 2013 a court ruled that the way “stop, question and frisk” was practiced by the NYPD was unconstitutional. Since that ruling, the NYPD has changed the way that the tactic is being implemented and the De Blasio administration has cut way back on it’s use. NYPD stops are now way down. In 2015, there were 22,939 New Yorkers stopped (80 percent of these people stopped were totally innocent). The statistics speak for themselves. Dramatically fewer stops have not affected the safety of the city. Violent crime is the lowest it’s been in decades and continues to decline.
But despite the challenge in New York City, “stop, question and frisk” is still practiced by police forces across the country, ruled legal and constitutional by the Supreme Court under the Fourth Amendment. As such, it’s an issue we must constantly confront and debate, both locally and nationally as we try to balance the support and safety of law enforcement with the rights and safety of all of our citizens.
Review Fix: What do you think your audiences will enjoy the most?
Widman: Being challenged by the humanity of the piece. Not “humanity” as in people treating each other well, but “humanity” as in the putting of a specifically human face onto “stop and frisk” – a term which now, in the news, has been abstracted into a political argument. This is, at its core, a play about four very specific characters and what happens when they all come together.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Widman: I have a couple of full-length plays I’m finishing and a number of other writing projects in the works!