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Cleveland's Consent Decree Inspires Play

Actors Jimmie Woody and Tina Stump argue over police protocol in "Breakout Session" [Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theatre]
Tension is obvious between actors Jimmie Woody and Tina Stump after an argument over official and personal police protocol

For nearly five years, Cleveland has been under a consent decree. Years of tension between the city police department and some community members over claims of excessive force prompted the U.S. Justice Department to take action.

In December 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came to town with the findings of a nearly two-year investigation of Cleveland police practices. The report documented numerous uses of excessive force, involving shooting, tasers and hitting suspects.

Holder cited a list of many systemic problems, “including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement in the community.”

Several months later, Mayor Frank Jackson signed a 105-page consent decree with the Justice Department. The document outlined the steps that the administration would take to address issues like use of force, crisis intervention and appropriate searches and seizures. All these goals were laid out on a timeline that would be monitored.

This federal mandate is the root of a play that opens this week at Cleveland Public Theatre. 

So, when I read the consent decree, there were two things that stood out to me,” said Cleveland Public Theatre Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan. To him, the decree had a lot of jargon that didn’t seem to get at the heart of the issues facing the city.

Then, there were other things that I felt were getting at the problem,” he said. “But, I also started having questions about this idea of legislating a change of heart, legislating change of culture. How do we create a safe community for all of our citizens?”

Those questions led to the idea of creating a play that would wrestle with such issues. With funds from the National New Play Network, Bobgan was able to commission Obie Award-winning playwright Nikkole Salter. Additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts helped pay for this world-premiere production. Salter laid down some ground rules from the start.

I said I can't write a play that... kind of takes an angle,” she said.

Nikkole Salter discussing the creation of "Breakout Session" at the City Club of Cleveland [Michaelangelo's Photography]

Salter wanted to examine the issue of police-community relations from all sides. Theater staffers put her in touch with not only community activists, but with the police, area residents and the mayor himself. In all these different interviews, she started hearing a common theme.

At the heart of the matter around the consent decree I found is the issue of trust. So let's talk about that,” she said. “Let's get to the root of that. What is it? What is trust? Why do human beings seek it? What do we think we're going to have when we get it? What do we think we're going to lose if we lose it?”

Jess Moore, Tina D. Stump, Enrique Miguel and Jimmie Woody [Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theatre]

The resulting play, “Breakout Session (or Frogorse),” tells the story of a business vying for an anti-bias training contract with the Cleveland police. In this scene, a skeptical sergeant questions a fellow officer for violating a so-called blue wall of silence that discourages snitching.

PRESTON WALKER: What is it exactly you don't like? That I told the truth? That I aired the dirty laundry to the people we're supposed to be accountable to? The people that pay our salaries? The people you just said you protect and serve?

KAREN SPENCER: You think I didn't know they were hazing you after Cook got shot?

PRESTON WALKER: No, I know you knew, and you didn't do anything about it.

KAREN SPENCER: You don't know what I was doing. There's a way to handle those things.

PRESTON WALKER (sarcastically): Oh, you mean there's a ‘protocol.’

The difference between official and unspoken rules is one of many themes Salter explores in the play. She said it’s important to get a variety of views in front of an audience, take people out of their comfort zones and promote some mutual understanding.

"How do I trust you when I don't perceive what you perceive and you don't perceive what I perceive?” she said. “How can we come to see each other's different perceptions as complementary?”

Although “Breakout Session” puts a variety of perspectives on the stage, Bobgan dismisses the notion that audiences will enter the auditorium with a single, social activist viewpoint.

Jess Moore, Enrique Miguel and Nicole Sumlin [Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theatre]

I think a lot of times it's easy to say you're preaching to the choir,” he said. “No. When you're dealing with a complicated, hard issue like this, there is no choir. I think this is a topic that we are all grappling with. And I'm not sure if there are such simple sides."

Bobgan said he’s invited Mayor Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams to attend.

"Breakout Session" is onstage at Cleveland Public Theatre until March 14. 

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.