By Holli Harms

Empathy is a difficult emotion. We are told that to truly understand what someone is going through we must try to put ourselves in their shoes. It’s not hard to wear another person’s shoes, but to walk in them, to really get it, we must put ourselves in their souls.

Not until I sat down and bared witness to Keith A. Wallace’s solo show THE BITTER GAME that tells the story of a young black man, Jamel Smith, and his life in North Philadelphia, did I, for the first time, really get it. I mean really, really get it. Mr. Wallace’s story and his telling of it put all of us in the soul of the young black man he is portraying. The plight of our fellow Americans, of the black male American, is a daily life of fear and caution, of watching one’s every move. At an early age Jamel’s mother tells him that any time he is not on the basketball court playing ball, he must remember to never, ever run. A black man seen running in public signals that he has done something criminal, or is about to. And always, always make sure to: “Number one, head up. Number two, eyes forward. Number three, ego down.” These are the rules of the game of your life if you want to survive.

The play opens with a block party in North Philly. An eight year-old Jamel is having fun with family and friends and then suddenly gunshots crack and that fun vanishes. Fear takes over. This is a child experiencing danger, a child whom just moments ago was playing basketball. This child will grow up with that fear and with him, the difficulties of a black man in America.

Don’t think that this is all pain and heartache. There is that, but there is also a lot of laughter AND our participation. Mr. Wallace doesn’t want us to sit back and watch. No, we are a part of the story, the lights on us may shift focus, but never go dark. We are in this together. We are not passive viewers, but active participants and listeners.

Mr. Wallace plays out all the various parts in the play with little or no change to self. He as a performer takes a backseat to the powerful story he is telling. The 55 minutes of THE BITTER GAME is divided into four quarters, like a basketball game. The audience is at a pick-up basketball game that is also a church. We get halftime and time-outs, as well as call and response.

Mr. Wallace is an actor, director, playwright and activist. He coined the term, “Actorvist” to describe his passion as actor and activist. His anger at the deaths of black men by police officers sparked THE BITTER GAME. He is angry, enraged, and if you weren’t before seeing the play, you will be after you’ve become part of this bitter life game.

Keith A. Wallace & Deborah Stein’s The Bitter Game was originally commissioned by and produced as part of La Jolla Playhouse 2015 WoW (With out Walls)Festival

Created, Written, and Performed by Keith A. Wallace
Directed and Co-Created by Deborah Stein
Assistant Director Malika Oyetimein
Production Stage Manager Kamra A. Jacobs
Stage Manager Mandisa Reed
Set Design Charlie Jicha
Sound Design Mikaal Sulaiman
Lighting Design Brandon H. Rosen
Costume Design Melissa Ng
Costume Art Direction Walter Myrick