Minneapolis-based Children’s Theatre Company debuts play about race and policing

Prosecutors this week declined to charge a white Minneapolis police officer in the fatal shooting of a Black man, Amir Locke. It comes nearly two years after the murder of George Floyd. Those killings have forced parents to grapple with how to talk to kids about racism and policing. Fred de Sam Lazaro looks at “Something Happened in Our Town,” a book-turned-play helping with those conversations.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Prosecutors this week declined to charge a Minneapolis police officer in the fatal shooting of Amir Locke. He was a young Black man who was shot and killed in a predawn no-knock raid.

    It comes nearly two years after the police killing of George Floyd. Those killings have forced parents to grapple with how to talk to kids about racism and policing.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro looks at a book-turned-play helping with those conversations.

    It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas, and our ongoing Race Matters coverage.

  • Actor:

    It's Manny. Keep the doors locked.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    It is a moment now all-too-familiar in American life, the killing of a Black man at the hands of police.

  • Actor:

    Everyone is safe. We have got racial overtones, if you know what I mean.

  • Actor:

    A police-involved shooting. They called this all in.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Moments of tension that traumatize communities and ripple nationwide. That tension takes center stage in "Something Happened in Our Town."

  • Actor:

    Did you see where the cops killed another Black man for nothing?

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Originally a children's book by a trio of psychologists, it tells the story of two families, one Black, one white, navigating the aftermath of such a killing.

  • Actress:

    The police thought he was reaching for a gun.

  • Actress:

    Well, Josh's mother said they shot him just because he is Black.

  • Actress:

    That is not true. Your uncle Manny will tell you the police have a job to do.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Playwright Cheryl West adapted the story for the stage, and it premiered at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis earlier this year.

    Twelve-year-old De'Anthony Jackson, a Minneapolis native, plays lead character Josh Perkins. It is a role not so distant from real life for Jackson, whose young memory is seared with the killing of George Floyd.

  • De’Anthony Jackson, Actor:

    Everybody was talking about it, and then, sooner or later, people was just burning stuff. My mom was crying and stuff. And it was just, like, crazy, because she was crying because another Black man got killed.

    Plus, she's thinking, like, what happens if that happened to one of my sons? In school sometimes, I will just be thinking in class, like, when is the next one going to happen?

    Dad, why are you getting so mad?

  • Kevin West, Actor:

    I am angry because we are still fighting the same fight, still being treated terribly, because 30 years later, I got to have the same talk with my sons that my father had with me.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Kevin West plays Josh's father, Calvin.

  • Kevin West:

    Just sitting here listening to him saying, when is it going to happen again, that pains my heart. That pains my heart, because he is a 12-year-old kid. He shouldn't be having to think in those terms. But the world we live in, he's been forced. Him and many other young people have been forced to take a look at what has been happening.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The book version of "Something Happened" first came out in 2018. Ann Hazzard is one of its authors.

    Ann Hazzard, Author, "Something Happened in Our Town": One of our main goals was to help families across the spectrum be able to talk about race and racism. Black parents historically have had to do that to keep their children safe and to preserve their self-esteem.

    But many white parents haven't addressed race or racism and weren't sure how to start. And I think our book offered families a helpful tool to get started on those conversations.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Attention surrounding The New York Times bestseller spiked in 2020, after George Floyd's murder. That year, it became the American Library Association's sixth most challenged books for its — quote — "divisive language and anti-police views."

    In a letter to Governor Tim Walz, Minnesota's largest police association asked the state to stop recommending the book for use in classrooms, saying it — quote — "encourages children to fear police officers as unfair, violent and racist."

  • Ann Hazzard:

    Children get the message of the book. The message is that it's not fair to treat people differently based on the color of their skin. Not once have we ever had a child say the message of the book is that police are bad guys.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Timothy Douglas is the play's director. Shortly after he accepted the role, he took a walk to the South Minneapolis intersection known as George Floyd Square.

  • Timothy Douglas, Director:

    I sat on one of the benches opposite the spot where George Floyd took his last breath. And it came to me that this is not a directing gig; this is an assignment.

    And because it is an assignment I surrendered any tie to dictating what the outcome should be, what the final product should look like on the stage. I just entered the first day of rehearsal and, together, we just started creating.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The play they created follows Josh and his best friend, Emma, as they try to make sense of the events gripping their community and straining their own relationship.

    They grapple with their perception of Emma's lovable uncle, Manny, a white police officer character Cheryl West added to the adaptation. And then there's is Josh's older brother, Malcolm, who butts heads with his parents over the killing and sneaks out of the house to join the protests.

  • Actor:

    There's power in numbers, and I have to stand up and be counted.

  • De’Anthony Jackson:

    But you are wearing a hoodie. They say you will get shot if you wear a hoodie.

  • Actor:

    That's exactly why I need to do this, when my little brother equates wearing a hoodie with getting shot.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    In just the second week of rehearsals last February, Minneapolis police fatally shot 22-year-old Amir Locke while executing a predawn no-knock warrant.

  • Protester:

    Amir Locke!

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The killing touched off more demonstrations. And, Director Timothy Douglas says, shook the production.

  • Timothy Douglas:

    I made assumptions about how much progress had been made in the city. And that was completely shattered when I looked into the faces of people here the day after Amir was killed.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The theater brought in a counselor to address the emotional trauma on the cast and crew.

    For De'Anthony Jackson and Kevin West, "Something Happened in Our Town" is meant not just to help families with difficult conversations. It's also a vehicle for change.

  • Kevin West:

    Theater is designed to speak for the current, for the time. Hopefully, we can put this to bed.

    That's my goal with this whole process, being a part of it, telling the story. Hopefully, this story isn't being produced and produced and produced and produced and produced, because, if it is, the problem isn't changing.

  • De’Anthony Jackson:

    There's needs to be a change. It is not something that I want. It is something that we need.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    And perhaps nowhere is it needed more than in the theater's backyard.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Minneapolis.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Fred's reporting is in partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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