Only time will tell whether Spokane is closer to the beginning or the end of a process to heal the rift between its community and its police department. But for one warm evening in May it could at least witness the intensity and complexity of the challenge as brought to life by
an ensemble of talented and resourceful Whitworth University students.
This happened Friday night, May 16th, at CenterStage, in the Whitworth production, Crossing the Line: An Examination of Police, Power and People. Proceeds benefited the Center for Justice. The applause for the Whitworth ensemble and its instructor, Brooke Kiener, never really stopped. But it did eventually subside so that the evening’s special guest, Boise Community Ombudsman Pierce Murphy, could give the voice of experience to what he sees as the central issue.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Murphy began. (Who watches the watchmen?)
Boise answered that question a decade ago by hiring Murphy, a funny, personable, and fearlessly engaged public servant who personifies how the Idaho city brought itself back from the abyss of a broken public/police relationship. Whether Spokane can begin to repair its own rupture in public confidence is another matter. But it was tantalizing to listen to Murphy talk in some depth about his experience and at least collect a hope that some day there’d be someone in Spokane with Murphy’s gifts and integrity who could speak as honestly about Spokane’s policing and accountability challenges as Murphy speaks about his and Boise’s.
Spokane may have a ways to go to find peace, or something like peace, between its police and its community, but there’s no mistaking the triumph for Brooke Kiener and her remarkable student ensemble.
A clear purpose of the Whitworth performers was to ask the hard public policy questions. But a question that was certainly on most minds in the CenterStage audience at 7:30 Friday night was what it was like for Meghan Wescombe to all but steal the show with her dead-on portrayal, both in voice and mannerisms, of Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick,
“When Brooke first assigned me the role of Anne I was really honored that she thought I could be able to take that on,” Wescombe said. “When Anne came to our class room to talk to us we were able to record her, so all of what I said were her actual words. And I was able to listen to her voice and do the best that I could to actually imitate the way she said each of her words.”
In the 45 minute performance, there is only one prop. It’s a green folder in the hands of Wescombe’s folksy and fiery real-life police chief. The folder contains the autopsy of Otto Zehm, the mentally disabled and unarmed Spokane man who was killed two years ago by Spokane police during a scuffle in a north side convenience store. Chief Kirkpatrick is a very smart woman with a disarming sense of humor. Wescombe captured the chief’s humor brilliantly. But the poignancy of her playing (and quoting) Kirkpatrick as the police chief used the Zehm autopsy report to lambaste Spokane journalists is a deeply unfunny scene that, in an instant, captures the depth of anger and resentment that exists not just on the part of Kirkpatrick, but in the minds of police department critics.
The performance richly captured the extraordinary journey of the students and their instructor as they worked through the mass of research and conflicting viewpoints of police, reporters, and defense lawyers. The script see-saws back and forth between the documentary performances of facts and testimony, and the comedy and frustration of trying to find not just the truth, but a way to do justice to the views on both sides.
“It’s been a definite roller coaster throughout the semester,” Wescombe said.” We were able to interview lots of people. People from the street, people from the Center for Justice, actual police officers, news reporters and so we were taking peoples’ actual words and putting them into the production. So, it’s not like we’ve made something up and thrown it out there out of our own little idea about what it might be. It’s real peoples’ opinions. At the same time, I think all of us felt a little bit of trepidation to perform it. What if one of the officers we talk about in one of our headlines is in the audience? What’s that going to be like? But I think ultimately I think we were honored to be able to perform it in front of the audience we were able to perform for.”
That audience included Mayor Mary Verner, Council President Joe Shogan and council members Steve Corker and Nancy McLaughlin. If there were members of the Spokane Police Department present in the packed room, they were inconspicuous.
After Murphy gave his talk on his experiences as Boise’s ombudsman, the cast joined him on stage for a half hour to field questions from the audience.
Near the end of the session, the students were asked whether they started by looking at the relationship between the police and the public, or whether they were focused on the issue of police brutality.
Lexi Scamehorn who, among other things, portrayed a public defender, answered the question this way:
“I think that when we started looking through this process we kept looking for a bad guy in this situation. We talked to the Center for Justice. We talked to Anne Kirkpatrick, and after each person that we would talk with we would be like, ‘oh so this is the bad guy,’ or ‘this is the problem.’ And I think that we kind of found through looking at this is that the problem really is through the communication at every component in this, with the media, with the police, with the community in general. So I think we went in looking for a clear cut answer and as I think our show shows, it’s really difficult to find a clear cut answer and it really is a mess you just kind of have to go through.”
“As Lexi said, we didn’t find a bad guy,” Nikolas Hoback added, “we really wanted to have an antagonist and a protagonist to make our show easier but we couldn’t find one. But it got us to a lot of things we were discussing, like, ‘what is police brutality?’ and ‘what is the citizens’ response to that?’ ”
As one watches Crossing the Line, it becomes increasingly evident that the troupe and its leader built the script from the scratch of a long, exhausting struggle to find their story.
“We tried really hard to come up with a central story line and we felt like everything we came up with limited us,” Kiener said in the glow of the reception following the performance. “Instead of letting us flesh out the issue it disabled us from doing that. So we decided to just put that in the show. And in the end we felt like the most interesting story we could tell is the story of our own process and it’s the one that we can certainly tell most truthfully and most accurately. So, rather than trying to create some sort of artificial story, we chose to tell our own story.”
To say it worked would be a huge understatement. Spokane may have a ways to go to make peace, or something like peace, with its police, but there’s no mistaking the triumph that Brooke Kiener and her students experienced Friday night.
Mary Ann Tripp, the north side activist who’s worked for nearly thirty years for police accountability reforms in Spokane, watched and applauded the performance with her sister from a table just off the stage. She also stayed for Pierce Murphy’s talk.
“I just admire him so much,” Tripp said. “I think what he’s trying to do is get both sides to listen. I think he’s done a great job in Boise and I just hope we can get somebody like him here.”