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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Chasing Mehserle" Maps Oakland After Oscar Grant's Death

Posted By on Wed, May 14, 2014 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Chasing Mehserle poster - PHOTO BY JOAN OSATO, DESIGN BY NICK JAMES
  • photo by Joan Osato, design by Nick James
  • Chasing Mehserle poster

Almost since she finished her first play, "Mirrors in Every Corner," about a black family in Oakland that has a white daughter, Chinaka Hodge, has been thinking about her next one -- and now it's here.

In "Chasing Mehserle," a character from "Mirrors," Watts, goes outside for the first time since the Rodney King beatings traumatized him. The day he chooses to leave his West Oakland home is January 1, 2009, the day transit cop Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant in the back Oakland's Fruitvale BART Station while Grant lay on the ground, handcuffed. Hodge, also a poet and screenwriter, says the tone of this play differs from her first one.

"The first piece was about me and the way I experience race and class," said Hodge, a native of Oakland, who now splits her time between there and Los Angeles. She continued:

"This one is more an exorcism of anger. I think there are more periods in this play than question marks, but it's asking when do you feel safe or unsafe and what about home makes you feel safe or unsafe and exactly what should the punishment be when someone dies and who, if anyone, should have a gun?"

click to enlarge Tristan Cunningham (foreground) wiht Tommy James Shepherd, Jonathan Williams (left to right, background) - ELI JACOBS- FANTAUZZI
  • Eli Jacobs- Fantauzzi
  • Tristan Cunningham (foreground) wiht Tommy James Shepherd, Jonathan Williams (left to right, background)

"Chasing Mehserle" plays at the Intersection for the Arts through May 24 before going on to Z Space and then on a national tour. Sean San José, the program director at Intersection, and a founder of Campo Santo (its resident theater company), worked closely with Hodge on both plays. He's known her, along with the other director on "Chasing Mehserle," Marc Bamuthi Joseph, since 1996, when both Campo Santo and Youth Speaks, which Hodge and Joseph have been involved with, were starting. San José calls Hodge's writing "pretty stunning stuff."

"She does this amazing thing with her language that lets you live in a place that's very vivid and very real, yet it's so intellectually and psychically thought through," San José said.

click to enlarge Halili Knox(foreground) Danez Smith (background) - ELI JACOBS- FANTAUZZI
  • Eli Jacobs- Fantauzzi
  • Halili Knox(foreground) Danez Smith (background)

Working with San José and Joseph, who she knows so well, gave her confidence with "Chasing Mehserle," Hodge said. Other people involved in the play include scenic designer Evan Bissell, video designer Joan Osato, and DJ Wonway Posibul.

"They're all super geniuses," Hodge said about her collaborators. "It's great walking into a room and being outclassed."

Hodge had someone else she relied on while working on "Chasing Mehserle" -- her friend Ryan Coogler, the writer and director of the 2013 critically and commercially successful movie "Fruitvale Station," about Oscar Grant's last day.

"I'm so nervous for him to see the show," she said. "His story was about the last day of the real Oscar Grant and mine is about real and imagined characters over a year moving between real and imagined situations."

Hodge didn't meet Coogler till both attended graduate school at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, but she said they know many people in common and have grown close.

"It was a lot to shoulder trying to tell this story and unpacking my own feelings and my own grief and poring over documents- sometimes I would I text him in the middle of night," she said. "Without his factual accounting, I wouldn't have had such freedom in tackling my story. I'm thankful for Ryan every day."

"Chasing Mehserle" plays at 8 p.m. starting May 15 and runs Thu-Sun through May 24 at Intersection for the Arts (925 Mission). Tickets are $25. For more information, call (415) 626-2787 or visit the "Chasing Mehserle website.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Emily Wilson

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