Jeff Sessions wants to bring back the War on Drugs. If you’ve forgotten about the racist legacy of these “get tough” laws, I recommend you see Spiritrials, a play created and performed by Dahlak Brathwaite, running now through April 30 at Disjecta.
Not long before the United States elected its first Black president, a young Black man was pulled over in his car for the 10th time. In all nine previous stops, he had been doing nothing wrong, and after varying degrees of police harassment, was released without being charged. But this time, he’d smoked some weed and had some magic mushrooms in his possession. “How am I going to get out of this?” he wondered. He’s a good guy. He’s been raised to be a “credit to his race”—not a statistic.
Using his original hip-hop compositions (with live scoring by DJ Dion Decibels) and dramatic performance, Brathwaite takes us through his autobiographical story, pointing out where and how his run-in with the criminal justice system could have taken a different course: The cop did not need to search him on a routine traffic stop. But he does. Finding a very small amount of mushrooms—an amount that in 48 other states could have resulted in merely a misdemeanor—the cop could’ve let him go. But he doesn’t. The DA could seek one of two avenues of prosecution for a first-time nonviolent drug offender: One would wipe his record clean, the other would forever label him a felon and addict. The DA chooses felon.
In Spiritrials, Brathwaite dramatizes his experiences in court and in a drug recovery center, embodying characters he meets there: Pastor, the old black cliché Dahlak tells us he never wanted to be, and Samples, the gold chain-wearing addict who makes souvenirs of tattoos and stories. Through these humorous and poignant performances, as well as his own narrative, Brathwaite explores racism, code-switching, black cultural history, his own shame and guilt at being another statistic in the black community, and his sense that it was inevitable.
Ordered by the court to call himself an addict and find God, Brathwaite’s performance works through his shame and guilt with art instead. He uses rich wordplay, hip-hop, and levity to find himself again, and to show the ruinous and dehumanizing impact of the criminal justice system and how people of color are ensnared in it every step of the way. It’s a powerful and persuasive account of the racism and injustice the War on Drugs has wrought.