The instant the string quartet finished, the police car was there: red and blue lights flashing, siren screaming as it approached.
On Saturday evening in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a masked crowd had gathered to watch a live performance being filmed on the Black Lives Matter mural that stretches down the center of Fulton Street — the Billie Holiday Theater’s powerful reading of “12 Angry Men … and Women: The Weight of the Wait,” a documentary collage of monologues about harassment, intimidation and violence by police against Black people who are simply going about their business.
The music, played by members of the New York Philharmonic, had been the overture, but now came this, a sudden shattering of the peace, intrusive and unnerving. When the car stopped, we could see it at close range through the set, a row of five booths lined up like solo stages for the cast, each with three plexiglass sides and an upstage scrim.
The vehicle’s strobes stayed on, and so did its headlights, silhouetting the four actors and one violinist (the excellent Daniel Bernard Roumain) as they took their places. OK, then — it was definitely part of the show, the first Actors’ Equity-approved production to take place in pandemic New York City. Its extraordinary, socially distanced design (particularly notable: Devin Cameron Jewett’s lighting and projections) took full visual and emotional advantage of the location.
That’s palpable in the sleek, five-camera YouTube video of the one-night-only show, directed by Indira Etwaroo, the Billie Holiday’s artistic director, and available to watch through Election Day. Right in front of the actors, bold letters on the asphalt spell out TAMIR RICE. The 12-year-old killed by Cleveland police is one of 159 people memorialized by the mural. This is the ground on which the show stands, the platform for what are, in essence, testimonies.
“I set out with my two sons,” a 19th-century man named Stephen Pembroke (Wendell Pierce) says in what becomes the play’s refrain, an affirmation of how bone-deep in our nation this ugliness goes. “We walked all night and got as far as New York City, where we were violently arrested and secured.”
They were trying to escape slavery. In this script, arranged by Arthur Yorinks, the other voices are contemporary, and most are adapted from “12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America Today,” a 2011 book by Gregory S. Parks and Matthew W. Hughey. An exception is the final story, a duologue about Breonna Taylor, the emergency room technician shot to death by Louisville, Ky., police six months ago.
In the other stories, no one dies; they suffer physical and psychic violence and live to tell the tale.
There is Solomon Moore (Billy Eugene Jones), a New York Times journalist who is arrested as he reports on antigang law enforcement. (“Police,” he says wryly, “have great difficulty determining who is, and who is not, a gangster — especially Black gangsters.”)
There is Devon Carbado (Lisa Arrindell), the immigrant whose American rite of passage is being “spread-eagled” and searched without cause.
There is Alex Landau (Marsha Stephanie Blake), pulled over for an illegal turn, who hears an officer say, “If he doesn’t calm down, we’re going to have to shoot him.”
These are stories of needless aggression, of traumatic indignities that didn’t have to be. And in watching Pierce play Breonna Taylor’s fiancé, nearly 30 years his junior, there is a reminder that the horror of that night and her loss will be with that young man forever.
The Billie Holiday first staged this “12 Angry Men” five years ago, with an all-male cast. Its updated revival now is a bold and vital response to an emergency in progress — and to the infuriating question: Who do you call for help when the people meant to help are the ones who are hurting you?
12 Angry Men … and Women: The Weight of the Wait
Through Nov. 3; youtu.be/lM6rMoSUJYQ. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes.