Chokehold to embrace:
Eric Garner play is moving meditation on race
by LAUREN STEUSSY
“Every time you see me, you think I’m different because I speak a different language, but you just don’t get it.”
The sentence started with the lesser-known phrase spoken by Eric Garner as cell phone footage began recording his arrest — and death — a year ago today: “Every time you see me.”
But instead of coming from the mouth of a black man, the words come from an 11-year-old girl, Vanessa Mendoza, who completed the phrase with her own racial experience growing up Hispanic in Port Richmond.
Mendoza was part of the production of “Every Time You See Me,” a local theater piece written and performed by a mostly Staten Island cast.
The acts were based off interviews with the community and real-life experiences of the cast. It was facilitated by a trio of organizations and performed Friday in the Staten Island Arts Culture Lounge in the St. George Ferry Terminal.
The play’s title and theme steers the play into the murky waters of race — and the conversations not being had about it. It asks its audience to consider the stories of racial minorities before making conclusions.
But aside from his words, Garner is not the focus of the play. Instead it’s the people themselves, for whom news of Garner’s death wasn’t news at all. He was “just another body,” as one actor put it.
“These are the difficult things we don’t talk about but we’ll say on stage,” said Diana Daniels before the start of the play.
Daniels shared a story from her childhood of a trip to Georgia in the 1970s, during which she had to eat in another room of a restaurant and was confronted by a white gunman in a corn field. Moments like these underlay the racial tension still present in neighborhoods like her own, she said.
The scene was nothing more than an emotional Daniels, speaking to the audience without a microphone. Other scenes were similarly stripped down, like a conversation between Sam Morrison and Stephon Font-Toomer about the concept of “white privilege.” In the scene, they ask the audience to contribute their ideas.
Organizers of the play — a mix of the Port Richmond community, Wagner College and national higher education organization Imagining America — hope to continue performing it in other iterations throughout the year. They invite anyone with a story to tell to be a part of future productions.
Some scenes were surprisingly funny. Some were refreshingly candid. Others were so heartbreakingly raw. Even crew members who had seen the rehearsals fought back tears, like when Maria Mendoza shared the emotional story of coming to America to give her daughter Vanessa a better life.
Before the Mendozas spoke, Vanessa appeared in a scene performing a folkloric dance, which was interrupted by an outburst of racial slurs. It showed the silencing power of racism on one’s traditions and expression.
The play ends with a striking but familiar image: a chokehold. Repeating the words “Every Time You See Me,” the actors’ death grips slowly turn to loving embraces.
As the actors performed their scenes, sounds from the ferry terminal seeped onto the stage. It was a reminder that these conversations could find a place in the outside world. Many scenes were simply conversations about incidences of racism — as if to provide a template for further real-life dialogue.
The real power in “Every Time You See Me” was knowing the scenes came from the Staten Island community. These are the stories that don’t make the news. Yet for the individuals acting them out, the stories have just as much of an impact on everyday racial tension.
“They wrote that, and they took risks,” said Hiiim Ozell, an audience member who said he plans to join the cast in future productions. “The most amazing part was what we felt.”