Benjamin Turk talks about didactic theater, state violence and the danger of "good cops"
Anarchist playwright Benjamin Turk sees theater as more than entertainment. He believes plays can spark dialogue, transform community and attack systems of violence: capitalism, the police and prisons. Steeped in the work of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal, who both resisted the idea that stories should help audiences connect with a main character and experience an overwhelming and resolved emotional turmoil (Aristotle called this "catharsis" and viewed it as the goal of a successful tragedy), Turk creates plays that challenge audiences to ask and answer pressing political questions, interrupting the dramatic flow for participatory conversations about police, gentrification, race and beyond. In advance of the July 18 performance of Behind the Badge, a play Turk has been touring across the United States, we spoke with him about his work, violence and the danger of "good cops."
Courtesy of Insurgent Theater Benjamin Turk wrote and stars in Behind the Badge.
See also: James Walsh on the Romero Troupe and Unbound, the doc premiering tomorrow
Westword: Talk about the event that's coming up?
Benjamin Turk: July 18 is going to be a performance of my play, Behind the Badge, with a community discussion led by Communities United Against Mass Incarceration. There will be a local conversation about mass incarceration and all the different meanings that go into that, as well as a performance of the play and some spoken word from Jeff Campbell. It's going to be a commemoration. It's the anniversary of when Alonzo Ashley was killed by the police. It will be a commemoration of that, and there will be family members there talking about that. It will be an event about how racist and fucked-up the police are and what we can do about it.
Talk about the play. What is it? What can audiences expect?
The play is a one-man interactive thing. I play a cop who thinks of himself as a good person. He's a neighborhood liaison. He's the softer side of policing. I pick an audience member, a volunteer, and set up an interrogation scene where I'm talking and the interogee doesn't say anything because they know their rights and they know not to talk. This cop is sound-boarding off of that person and is trying to legitimize himself as a good police officer. The play is also interrupted with interactive discussions with the audience about some of the things the play is trying to say and also about our American police state in general.
What are those conversations like?
They go down in a wide variety of ways. It really depends on the audience. Sometimes it can become rather free-wheeling, with people bringing up topics from personal experience, and other times it's more of a brainstorm: What do we know about prison? What do we know about torture? What do we know about the different reforms that are going on? We're collecting information and knowledge in the room, so people who have different experiences are also able to share that with me and also the rest of the audience.
Talk about how you got involved in prison work and dealing with the subject of police?
Insurgent Theater toured with a show called Ulysses Crewman, which I wrote, in which I played a WTO official, or a bureaucrat of some kind, going to a global summit. He is held hostage by anarchists. Things have gone wrong for the anarchists.
Kate, who is the director of this play, played a sole anarchist who had this hostage that she didn't know what to do with. It was a very violent play that dealt with questions of violence, militancy and revolution. It brought all of these questions up. We'd have long discussions with the audience afterward and in a lot of spaces we went with that show, people kept bringing up prison. They'd say, the stuff you're talking about in this play is kind of a moot point because we live in a police state, and these things are not possible. We have this bubble of prison stuff going on in this country.
It really opened my eyes, because I wasn't aware that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world or how people are in solitary confinement for decades. That really mobilized me to these issues and discussions that happened afterwards. We went back home and started an Anarchist Black Cross chapter. We evolved that from working on political -prisoner issues to prison abolition. That organization still exists. It's called Red Bird Prison Abolition. There is a sister organization called Red Bird Books to Prisoners. We sent books to prisoners and also started corresponding with them to strengthen the organization and start building resistance in Ohio.
Through that work, I got to know folks like Sean Swain, who is an anarchist prisoner serving a life sentence for a murder which was actually self-defense. The courts railroaded him.
Also, the guys from the Lucasville Uprising, an eleven-day standoff and occupation at a correctional facility in Lucasville in 1993, a number of them are still in prison, in solitary confinement. The guys who negotiated a peaceful surrender of the uprising, the state went after them and called them leaders. It put five of them on death row. I've been working to try to support them. In the process of doing that, we entered into another play about solitary confinement called In the Belly, where we got input from a lot of those prisoners, and put solitary confinement on the stage, so people would have some notion about what it is that is going on across the country.
Doing that play really deepened our connection with prison struggles and prisoner support and made it much more of a personal issue for us, even though none of us have actually been incarcerated. But now we have very good friends who've been in solitary confinement for decades. After that, it was like I can't imagine doing another Insurgent Theater play that doesn't deal with these issues, that doesn't deal with prison. Behind the Badge is about police, which is really the first step to incarceration and to our presentation. Obviously, police and prisons are related, and that's where that came up.
Read on for more from Benjamin Turk.