IOWA CITY — Questions about police brutality and misconduct have made plenty of headlines, but they are rarely explored in the theater.
Riverside Theatre artistic director Sean Christopher Lewis wants to change that.
Lewis is writing and directing a world premiere play, “Black and Blue,” that will open on Riverside’s stage Sept. 9 and continue through Sept. 25.
The play focuses on conflict between Charlie (Ryan West of Iowa City), a veteran police officer in Chicago, and Marcus (Barrington Vaxter of Iowa City), a suspect who Charlie arrested 10 years earlier. During the arrest, Charlie used a choke hold on Marcus that knocked him unconscious and landed him in the hospital. Marcus called it brutality; Charlie says he acted appropriately and used the necessary force he’d been trained to use.
A decade later, Charlie’s sister Charlotte (Alyssa Perry) is looking into the case for herself. Not only does she ask her older brother hard questions about what happened, she brings Marcus to Charlie’s home to revisit their last confrontation face-to-face.
“This is an in-process production about one of the most immediate issues in our country today,” Lewis said. “I think the worst thing a theater can do is be scared of these conversations.”
Lewis said he’s aware of the private struggles and mental anguish suffered by civil servants that is often ignored. At the same time, he said, “I need to explore what it means to want protection and fear your protectors. What is it to suffer abuse and then see those people on the street the next day.”
“Black and Blue” isn’t just the first show of Riverside Theatre’s 2016-17 season. It’s also the first production with Lewis at the helm as Riverside’s artistic director. Lewis — a founder of Working Group Theatre whose most recent effort, “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” met wide acclaim at The Englert Theatre this past spring — took over at Riverside in July.
Lewis has previously earned acclaim as a film director, graphic novel author and actor. He’s explored controversial subjects on stage before with productions like “Mayberry,” “Killadelphia” and “Dogs of Rwanda.” He’s also been featured on NPR’s “This American Life” and has been awarded the Kennedy Center’s Rosa Parks Award, the NNPN Smith Prize, the Barrymore Award, the NEA Voices in Community Award, the William Inge Fellowship and numerous others.
Lewis knows “Black and Blue” is tackling a sensitive subject. He hopes audiences embrace that.
“I don’t propose to be an expert or have answers,” he said. “I am a guy who got obsessed with four people in a room on a night in Chicago, all of them desperately wanting to do the right thing, and none of them really knowing exactly what that means.”