By Matt Werner

“Downtown Oakland used to be empty and dangerous. Now it’s crowded and lying about itself. Luxury condos are next to SROs. It’s going to eat itself.” – Watts in Chasing Mehserle

Chinaka Hodge is no stranger to tackling some of Oakland’s biggest issues head-on. Her 2010 play Mirrors in Every Corner dissected the changing demographics of Oakland as seen through a family in a West Oakland living room over two decades.

Chasing Mehserle, her most ambitious play yet, tackles gentrification, race relations, white privilege, and police misconduct in Oakland. Hodge’s characters weave these subjects with tact, and audience members were teary-eyed even before intermission. Hodge’s intense play finished its run at Intersection for the Arts and is running at Z Space through May 31 before touring nationally. Oakland Local interviewed Hodge via email. Her responses were edited for length.

Oakland Local: The Oscar Grant shooting happened in 2009. What inspired you to write this play and to produce it now? Did the release of the film Fruitvale Station change the play’s trajectory?

Chinaka Hodge: Fruitvale Station did the heavy lifting of telling the first truths about our city and our dismay. I saw the film before I finished writing the play, at its Sundance premiere in January of 2013. I sat with the film for months, both shaken and comforted by the movie. I waited for the rest of the world to see it. The national release of Fruitvale Station, serendipitously and eerily in the same weekend as the horrendous Zimmerman verdict, came at exactly the right time to allow the outraged to begin processing our grief.

I liken the release of the film to James Brown’s performances that kept the country from erupting in the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination. It was what we needed; I knew that because of Ryan’s courageous work, I wasn’t tasked to tell the same tale. I sighed a gigantic breath of relief. And finished my play.

OL: You’ve raised the issue of gentrification in Oakland in your prior works such as the songs “Kill a Hipster” with Watsky and “Small Things (To A Giant)” with Daveed Diggs. However, in this play, you explore it in much greater depth, having not only monologues about white privilege, but dialog about the institutional memory of West Oakland being erased by blonde cyclists riding by and Ivy-league-educated white kids moving in.Your character Watts says “First my city, then my block, now my room,” referring to the white character Lyle taking over his room. And you even have Watts demand Lyle to “Get your gentrification traveling circus out of my bedroom.” What is it about this issue that keeps you coming back to it, and have you fully articulated what you want to express on this topic?

CH: Ha. Great question. I think that my first notable poem in the spoken word scene, “Barely Audible” marked me as a young person who was thinking about gentrification in neighborhoods like West Oakland, early on. Because of that people ASK me to write, talk and lecture about it. The piece I wrote for SF Magazine’s June Oakland issue is probably the last of what I’ll write for a bit, concluding a pretty aggressive cycle of writing and thinking on the topic, which is inclusive of Chasing Mehserle. If I had my druthers for a bit, I’ll be writing away from the topic, just as a means of allowing my creativity to burst in a different direction.

OL: In Chasing Mehserle, you point out how this shooting of Oscar Grant by a white police officer happened “In the most progressive place on earth” on the eve of President Obama’s first inauguration. Could you describe this paradox of Oakland being socially progressive, while having stark differences in how people of different races are treated?

CH: I think your question summarizes my response.

OL: Have you heard any reply from the Mehserle family about your play?

CH: None.

OL: Since you wrote Mirrors in Every Corner in 2010, you attended USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to study Writing for Film and Television. What drew you back to writing about Oakland, and why did you write Chasing Mehserle for the stage and not for film?

CH: I’d already started writing Chasing Mehserle before starting at SC. The film projects I worked on while there, and am working on now, are also about Oakland and issues of equity, race, class and gender. That’s my niche, and I’m sticking to it, for a while, at least.

OL: Is there a reason why you chose to place the farmers market in Southern Marin, even though Mehserle was from Napa, a different county?

CH: So, I harken back to the first days after the tragedy, when my activist/organizer friends were trying to figure out an appropriate and proportionate response for Mehserle’s actions. While the Grant/Johnson family’s information was readily available: the media dispatched Grant’s job, mother’s name, city of residence, etc., … There was much more myth/misinformation about Mehserle. At the time, Mehserle was said to be living in Marin or Napa or Tahoe — info was unreliable.

Since Watts is quite the unreliable narrator (even outsourcing his narration to an imaginary friend in Puck), and the play is built around his foolish ideas, his rants, his willingness to throw himself wholeheartedly into a half-drawn plan, I decided to play with this and make Marin a focal point.

OL: In Chasing Mehserle, you left clues in the piece around the death of Miranda. Will there be a follow-up play that explores this? Are you making Mirrors and Chasing into a trilogy?

CH: Maybe. I’m not sure yet. I just knew I wanted to write something into Mehserle that showed how it fit into Mirrors in Every Corner.

If I do write a sequel, it will likely be an epistolary play, one built around letters between Ninth and Row while one is away at war and coming out as transgendered the other is away in prison.

OL: Are there parallels to the family you describe in Chasing Mehserle and your own family?

CH: There are parallels, but not truths or facts. The Truscott family lives, in both plays, at the intersection of 18th and somechange in West Oakland. We never really specify a street or a block. My family, at least in part, lives at 18th and Myrtle — so I’m writing the things familiar to me, but not necessarily the exactitudes of our experience. I’m the oldest of 8 kids, Watts the oldest of 4. The Truscott father is all but written out of the stories, whereas I have two very active fathers in my life, my dad and my stepdad.

My mother is more beautiful than how we describe Willie. They are both strong and quick-witted. But other than that, they are very different.

I think, most accurately, that every character in both plays is a faction of my own identity. Watts, the troubled but good intentioned caretaker. Willie, the stoic matriarch. Lyle, the good-intentioned but ineffective organizer and gentrifier. Ninth, the questioning queer and absentee sister who is always on the road. Row, the ratchet negro who gets himself into trouble first and makes a plan later. Ocean, the disgruntled BART rider: all me.

Chasing Mehserle
playing Thursday, May 29 – Saturday, May 31
Z Space
450 Florida Street
San Francisco
zspace.org

14 Responses

  1. OaklandNative

    Chinaka Hodge,
    This sounds like a very interesting play. Will you be bringing it to Oakland?

    Reply
  2. Wade

    This is some of the most racist writing Ive seen from this paper yet .
    Are you guys still going to be about the pro black agenda when a strong middle class rebounds here . Or does “Empty and scary ” what were after ?
    “having not only monologues about white privilege, ” “but dialog about the institutional memory of West Oakland being erased by blonde cyclists riding by and Ivy-league-educated white kids moving in.” Oh my god every one run educated white people are coming !
    I never knew everyone I went to school with was white ?
    Lately I’m finding your wrag to be a little bit more about punching buttons
    and less to do with anything .

    Reply
  3. Jonatton Yeah?

    ““Downtown Oakland used to be empty and dangerous. Now it’s crowded and lying about itself.”

    And before it was empty and dangerous….it was crowded! Wowsers! Would you look at that! Was it lying about itself then? Or is Oakland’s peculiar dishonesty to somebody unspoken or about something unknown a recent phenomenon? You can treat that as rhetorical as I really don’t care.

    Reply
  4. Sara Brown

    I can’t help but remember the “Free Mehserle” banner hanging off the yacht harbored outside AT&T Park during the World Series; such a gross display of bigotry and privilege that was broadcast across the US.

    Fruitvale Station was a powerful movie – but at its core it was basically showing its audience that Oscar Grant was a man who had a full life and didn’t deserve to die. The tragedy is that in our country that remains revolutionary statement for a young black man. I’m very interested to see the play, and to learn how it is received across the country.

    Reply
  5. Susan Mernit

    Uh, Wade, this is an article about a play about police brutality and racism. We publish 2-5 articles a day.
    Maybe you only notice or read the ones that inflame you? We’re not trying to outrage anyone, but we are committed to publish diverse views, including comments like yours.

    Reply
  6. OaklandNative

    Wade,

    Being black and middle class does insulate you from racism. In fact, in many ways, you’re more exposed to it than if you lived in a poor Black neighborhood. If you go to an integrated school, you will encounter systemic racism daily. Personally, I shiver when I see young children who are the only black kid in class.

    Reply
  7. Oakie

    Sara Brown: “gross display of bigotry and privilege”… “as a man who had a full life and didn’t deserve to die. The tragedy is that in our country that remains revolutionary statement for a young black man.”

    I completely reject the idea that the mere fact that someone expresses the idea that Mehserle might have been unjustly railroaded and put in prison makes them a bigot, or an expression of privilege. Shutting down free expression this way is morally despicable, let alone wrong-headed. Making Oscar Grant, because of this tragedy, into a martyr free of any responsibility for what he did in his life is a complete whitewash. Is he the best you can come up with as an ideal black man? I can think of many that have made a much better use of their life. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but if your fictionalized version of his life continues to make claims of moral superiority, that courtesy might melt away.

    Reply
  8. OaklandNative

    Ideal black man?

    I don’t think the intent was to depict such a thing. I think the point was to humanize him. It is easy to ignore–even justify–the killing of black men because black men are demonized by the mainstream.

    In fact, it seems whenever a black man is guilty of a crime, black people need to point out that it was an individual, not a racial statement. Hence the need to humanize Oscar Grant.

    Look how Zimmerman got off with the murder of Trayvon. The jurors didn’t see Trayvon as a young man, but as a menacing black threat. Thus, they let Zimmerman go. The juror even acknowledged dismissing his woman friend a witness because they had vilified her, as well as Trayvon.

    So the problem with the “ideal black man” doesn’t start with trying to make Oscar Grant an angel. It starts with white America’s demonizing of Black men period.

    Reply
  9. Oakie

    Yes, I can see the need to humanize people, including criminals. Totally agree. That’s why I sought out a friend who happened to actually have known him through work. I didn’t demonize him but I did want to understand him better, as a person. What I found out did not improve my opinion of him, as a person. In no way does this legitimize his tragic death.

    As to humanizing people, when it’s someone expressing a different point of view from the dominant culture, then they become bigots and privileged instead of, you know, people who happen to have another opinion. Apparently those people seem to deserve demonizing, unlike black men. At least that how I read what you are saying plus what has not been said regarding Sara’s remarks. As they say, doing nothing in the face of evil makes you responsible, too.

    Reply
  10. OaklandNative

    Oakie,

    I was explaining why we made movies like “Fruitvale Station” for ourselves.

    As you said, you had an opinion (assumption? prejudice?) of Oscar before you asked your friend about him. What was your opinion based on? Your friend supported your opinion. Now you’re comfortable with it.

    But how many other people have that opinion (assumption? prejudice?) when they saw Oscar or any other Black man? Without asking someone who knew him? What were they basing it on?

    How well did your friend really know Oscar?

    The public had a similar opinion of Trayvon Martin. Despite the evidence, he was still demonized. I had a white man argue that Zimmerman was defending himself–despite the fact that Zimmerman plainly attacked Trayvon. Zimmerman was set free. Look at what Zimmerman has done since his release.

    We want to see ourselves differently in the media, so we tell our story for ourselves. If I knew some white person who had assumptions about Oscar, would I want to get into a discussion with them? Not really.

    But I will say that I would rather see Trayvon’s story told.

    Reply
  11. hellawhat

    Were you there on the platform when Oscar was shot? Cause I was. Truth be told you really dont know what happened unless you were there. How many witnesses voices have been heard. Where are their stories?

    Reply
  12. A

    OaklandNative,

    Were you there when Zimmerman allegedly attacked Trayvon? I’m going to go out on a limb and say you weren’t. The fact of the matter is that no one really knows what happened except Zimmerman and Trayvon. To say otherwise is silly because each person is going to spin it to their agenda/opinion.

    Where is your comparison of Zimmerman to O.J. Simpson? Was Nicole Simpson demonized to allow O.J. to be set free? What about Roderick Scott (Google is your friend)? How could he have been set free if he was being demonized from the get go?

    Also, I don’t know if you know, but the current U.S. President is African American. I wonder how he managed that since the mainstream media sure likes to demonize African American males. Heck, I don’t even know how he was even elected……..twice for that matter! All those famous African American entertainers, athletes, scholars, and politicians? Demonized by the mainstream media!!

    One last thought, how is that African Americans place the lives of their fellow African Americans in such low regard given that the murder rate within their own race is so high? Is that part of the demonization?

    Reply
  13. OaklandNative

    A,

    I love Obama for successfully and skillfully dancing around that Black male stereotype for years– yet you give America the credit for being “colorblind.” That’s BS.

    By the way, you do realize that the Bundy and Sterling controversies happened while Obama was president. So athletes are not immune to racism. And entertainers have written for years about the racism they endured and danced around to get success.

    Even Oakie admitted to having an “opinion” when she first heard about Oscar Grant’s shooting. But whatever she later heard from her friend did not justify his killing. Still, I appreciate her honesty.

    As far as Trayvon Martin/Zimmerman. All the evidence pointed to Zimmerman as aggressor. From the 911 call to the testimony by the young lady he was on the phone with. After the trial, that one juror admitted being so blinded by her prejudices that she voted to acquit Zimmerman.

    And yes, there are a few African Americans who have demonized other African Americans. They need to stop doing that. They’re encouraging and justifying others to do it. Like you implied in your comment, if they can hurt each other, why can’t other people?

    Though I had my criticism of “Fruitvale Station,” I applauded the movie. It made us think about how we demonize each other.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.