When We Make Monsters | Tori Keenan-Zelt
From our Good Monsters Dramaturg and Ingram New Works Alumni Tori Keenan-Zelt. Good Monsters is a play about Frank, who shot Safira in a Walmart parking lot. Frank is a police officer. He is white. He is a veteran. He is trusted with protecting people. Safira was 16. She was Kuwaiti. She was not armed. She had stolen a pair of jeans. She was running. She was shot. And she died. And now, Safira haunts Frank.
A different play might have posed the question of whether and to what extent Frank’s action were justified. Had this play done so, it would have asked us to decide to what extent Frank is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ person and, troublingly, to what extent Safira deserved her death. Instead, this play presents as given circumstances that Safira was not dangerous, that Frank knew she was not dangerous, and that he should not have shot her. Her death was wrong. It was bad.
Yet, the play challenges us to tread an uneasy line around the dichotomy of good and bad by undermining our ability to categorize its characters tidily. Frank’s friends offer him stories that would defend him as good by casting Safira as bad and her death as either an ‘accident’ or the inevitable cost of ‘security.’ In their words, we hear echoes of “You can’t handle the truth.” Yet such victim-blaming only works insofar as the person who has been wronged can be flattened into a caricature. Frank (and we) can’t comfortably accept these stories while Safira remains present as a fully-formed, complex person. And the play lets her be angry. And funny. And full of contradictions. You know – a person. One who does not have to have been perfect or even innocent to have been underserving of her death.
On the other hand, the specter of public opinion, voiced in the play by crisis manager Josie, threatens to condemn Frank as a monster – actually, a ‘racist monster’:
“All our good stories are failing us, Frank. Our fairytales are suddenly worthless. The one about the guy who worked hard and got ahead. The one about the guy who did the right thing and was rewarded. The one about the man who did his job and everyone thanked him for it because it was what they asked him to do in the first place. But we desperately crave stories, how else are we supposed to make sense of a world turned upside down? So we take the shitty stories instead. The guy who did it on purpose, the crook who got away with it, the man who did just what we expected because he’s a racist cop piece of shit. These are the stories we tell ourselves now. And we’re telling ourselves that kind of story about you.” (Good Monsters, 37)
In Josie’s binary framework, unless Frank can justify his action, he must be bad because the thing he did was bad, and vice versa. Yet, just as the play does not allow us to reduce Safira to one thing, it does not allow us to dismiss Frank as one thing. We watch him shadowbox his guilt, reject while also reaching out, protect while also attacking, and ultimately, exist as a fully-formed, contradictory person who does not have to be bad to have done a bad thing but may not be made good by doing good either. Frank starts messy. And he tangles himself more as he struggles and struggles and fails to understand why he did what he did.
By forming this tangle on stage, the play leads us beyond weighing Frank’s guilt and into a deeper interrogation of what we do when we tell ourselves stories about monsters. If we see Frank as only a monster, a bad apple, we look away from his humanity. We avoid engaging with him. And we absolve both him and ourselves of the responsibility to really, honestly ask how a teenager gets killed by a cop in a parking lot. Not just on stage, not just on our news screens, but in real, living, breathing life.
‘Attention must be paid.’ Actually, we must pay attention. To Safira. To Frank. To our stories. To ourselves. I’ll be listening from my seat. Will you?
Nashville Repertory Theatre's production of Good Monsters runs through February 13-27, 2016 at Johnson Theater in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). Learn more and buy tickets here.
Photos by Shane Burkeen | Pictured: Nathaniel McIntyre, Alexandra Huff, and Megan Murphy Chambers