Theater Review: GRAVEYARD SHIFT (Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 17, 2020

in Theater-Chicago


It’s an evil not to be exorcised. As the excellent HBO documentary My Name Is Sandra Bland showed, a tragedy resonates — Bland was found hanged in a prison cell in Prairie View, Texas, the dump-of-a-city to which she returned for an exciting administrative teaching position. A popular poster of videos (“Good morning, my beautiful kings and queens!”), this 28-year-old ebullient optimist from Naperville, Illinois, pulled up stakes in 2015 to start a new life amid some very old hate. Fully aware of the Black Lives Matter movement, and incensed by police killings in Chicago and beyond, Bland remained refreshingly open-minded even about recidivist bigots. Characteristically trusting, Sandra Bland hoped hard, reason enough to give the Lone Star state a chance.

On July 10 of that year she got pulled over by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to signal a lane change. It should have ended with a citation. The appalling video of their escalating confrontation peaks when he illegally demands that she put out her cigarette and exit the vehicle. Epithets are exchanged and — seeing her as uppity — forces her to the ground.

All too soon she’s found hanged in her prison cell, something friends and supporters find impossible to believe. Suspiciously, no tapes show how the complicated strangulation happened.

It seems that the difference between this hanging and a lynching was a difference without distinction.

graveyard shift (not capitalized for reasons not worth knowing) purports to retell this harrowing incident. A fervent but overwritten world premiere at Goodman Theatre, this 110-minute new work by korde arrington tuttle (ditto) concentrates on the calamity’s clashing characters more than the outcome and outrage, or particularizing the details of her death.

Instead the play spends over an hour just to set up the crisis, a, well, bland way to begin. To the anguish of her lover Kane (Debo Balogun), Janelle (Aneisa J. Hicks as Sandra) is determined to forge a new life down south. He fears that she has become too big for them to be “us.”

On the other side of the runway stage we learn a lot — in too much small talk — about the cops who became Janelle’s nemesis. This Brian (Keith D. Gallagher), frustrated in his baseball dreams, is a fuck-up who’s been recently demoted. Though married, he’s fornicating with colleague Elise (Rae Gray), who’s a would-be country singer. Like Janelle, she also wants to leave home. Brian is rattled by this supposed desertion. Meanwhile, their boss Trish (the always wonderful Lia D. Mortensen), herself a frustrated journalist, acts like a protective mother hen and plays referee between the workmates.

As for the actual crime and lack of punishment, tuttle skips the ugly specifics. Instead she provides two huge and archly poetic monologues from Janelle and Kane that seem all the more static given the slowness of director Danya Taymor’s staging. Despite a lack of projection, they do provide two fine actors abundant room to deliver their characters’ very different protests and passions. Kane’s is the more problematic as he improbably flails a revolver in the faces of Texas cops who somehow fail to shoot him down. It’s a contrived conflict at its most schematic.

As a final, maddeningly inconclusive, tableau shows, Brian has been fired — and, in his new job, delivers a pizza to the unshot Kane. Whatever…

It’s a shame: graveyard shift (the title more metaphorical than factual) could have been really interesting. But mister tuttle settled for speeches instead of a story. Of course it’s the worst wishful thinking to pretend that there could ever be common ground between two of these characters and the other three (though tuttle provides parallels). But, especially if that can’t happen, all five need to reach an audience. Despite good casting and persuasive performances, on opening night there were altogether too many closed eyes.

photos by Liz Lauren

graveyard shift
Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre
170 North Dearborn
ends on March 8, 2020
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikki Smith February 26, 2020 at 7:21 pm

Please, PLEASE read this review, folks at Goodman. I fear you no longer understand your patrons. Thank you, Larry, for stating the facts.


Peter Joshua February 27, 2020 at 4:21 pm

Candid review. An essay, a poetic one, not a drama.


Dr. Linda Abington April 2, 2020 at 11:30 am

Mr. Lawrence Bommer gave an excellent review on outstanding performers in a myopic play. It’s unfortunate that the emphasis was on sexual innuendos and disjointed soliloquies instead of a cohesive (or realistic) story line. As I looked around the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was to preserve and ensure the comfort of the theater patrons.


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