This is the show you need to see in post-election America. A show like Underdog Theatre’s Baltimore is Burning is always important, especially given current issues of police brutality. But in an environment as heated and strained as the one we currently find ourself in, a performance like this can only double in magnitude.
On the day Freddie Gray disappears after being violently apprehended by police, Baltimore’s CPAA, who seek justice and the protection of civil rights, are attending a scheduled meeting where their president is mysteriously absent. Trying to continue on despite absent leadership, the group is divided on issues that affect the future of their organization and how they react to the event around them. Anxiously hovering on the agenda is Freddie’s disappearance and what the CPAA will do when they discover what really happened to him.
This performance is a tour d’force, with a powerhouse cast of Brianna M. Daniels, Pedro Jaun Fonseca, Anna Hickey, JuCoby Johnson, Joann Oudekerk, Siddeeqah Shabazz, Dana Lee Thompson, and Andrew Erskine Wheeler. In a story that shows and inside look at how a civic organization functions, ideas advocacy are complicated – should the CPAA advocate rioting over peaceful protests? Can an organization run effectively when their president makes public appearances but won’t attend private meetings? What does “we just want to help” really mean? Each character is multi-dimensional, especially in terms of the police, represented by a season lieutenant with corruption coloring his career and a young officer who struggles to see past her privilege and need for respect in order to communicate with the CPAA members. Featured between scenes is real footage of Freddie Gray’s arrest. This footage, as well as the climax of the play, are difficult to watch. But they’re scenes we see more and more often, due to filming from eyewitnesses and cameras worn by the police capturing the issues of police brutality that run rampant in law enforcement.
At the end of the show, I found myself wondering if I’d breathed at all during the performance. It is an intense ride with tension arriving from the very beginning. This play excels in many ways but what it does best is taking us into a situation quite a few of us – especially us white allies – may never be in: throwing us into the meeting of a civil rights organization about to speak with the police. Quickly, we learn where each CPAA member stands and what they’re advocating. It becomes clear how impossible it is to remain calm when terrible things happen and when justice is occluded by the phrase “I was just doing my job.” Theater is especially powerful when it’s writing about a current cultural moment, and Baltimore is Burning does so wonderfully.Words cannot fully capture the power and impact of this show, so I can only beg you to see it – don’t miss this one, Twin Cities. You need to see it.
Baltimore is Burning is written by Kory LaQuess Pullam and directed by Jamil Jude. It is playing now through December 4th at Savage Umbrella’s SPACE. All shows are pay what you can and tickets can be purchased in advance from Brown Paper Tickets.