Playwright Robert Johnson Jr.’s “Stop and Frisk” feels all too close to home as it offers a rare theatrical view into the world behind the headlines of illegal searches and racial profiling in Boston. Director Jacqui Parker, who is also the force behind the 2014 African American Theatre Festival (of which this play is a part), has placed the emphasis on character development, which helps smooth over some of the rougher plot points in the revival of this 1994 play.
Set in 1992 and written in the wake of an inflamed climate of racial tension in Boston in the aftermath of the Carol Stuart murder (a black man was initially charged with the killing that had been committed by Stuart’s husband, Charles, who was white) “Stop and Frisk” captures the frustration of a community that felt under siege.
Johnson, an attorney and a professor of Africana studies at UMass Boston, builds his story around Johnny Peterson (Kinson Theodoris), a freshly minted high school graduate and talented poet who is heading for plumbing school. Johnny lives in the Orchard Park projects in Roxbury with his mother, Emma (Karimah Williams), who is disabled and struggles to pay her bills each month. Johnny’s writing talent has drawn the attention of The Collective, a group of Boston artists, and when the play opens, Johnny is preparing for a reading of his poems for the group.
But while hanging out with some friends before the reading, Johnny is arrested and charged with possession and intent to distribute a large amount of crack cocaine. Although the charges are clearly trumped up, the system is stacked against him. The climax of the play revolves around Johnny’s decision to either defy the odds and be the man his mother knows he is or give up and accept his limited options, but Johnson inexplicably allows that scene to happen offstage.
What happens instead is a parade of stereotypical characters, including an attorney (Eboni Baptiste), the first black woman considered for partnership in her corporate Boston firm, who doesn’t understand the realities of a criminal court; a homeless woman (an excellent Valerie Lee) determined to maintain her dignity; police officers whose outrageous accusations are accepted without question by a tough prosecuting attorney; and a successful black businessman (Brandon Kimm) who counsels the attorney not to waste her time on a teen who’s probably guilty.
What saves “Stop and Frisk” from being too polemical is Parker’s deft direction. Theodoris is charming and earnest as Johnny recites his love poems and struggles with a decision about the right thing to do. Antonio Stroud and Cheri Nelson are spot-on as Johnny’s slightly sketchy friends.
“Stop and Frisk” may not be as solid as Johnson’s “Patience of Nantucket” (2006), but his willingness to anchor his story in the emotional atmosphere of the time, combined with Parker’s ability to elicit strong performances from her cast, make “Stop and Frisk” a compelling look at the continuing challenge young black men and women face as they try to take their rightful place as contributing members of society.