It's hard for anyone who wasn't around in the era of the Hough riots to imagine the impact they had on this city. In the summer of 1966, a nasty racist encounter at a bar at East 79th and Hough Avenue triggered six nights of arson, police over-reaction, sniper fire, commie-bashing, and deaths of four African-Americans.
Two years after the riots, I felt some of those strong reverberations when, as a new teacher in the Cleveland public school system, I walked across the parking lot at Patrick Henry Junior High on my first day. This was in the Glenville neighborhood, some distance from Hough. Still, there was a fine dusting of broken glass underfoot, and as I approached the school I paused to watch an eight-man squad of black militants wearing matching berets as they marched in a syncopated drill.
In the ensuing years, all neighborhoods in Cleveland were rocked by the Hough riots, giving rise to black power initiatives on one side and furthering racial animosities on the other. And while much progress has been made since then — some fundamental and some merely cosmetic — the racial tensions between police and the black community are still front-page news. These deadly encounters across the country aren't race riots; the confrontations are often individual and contained. But they are equally horrific and the names of the victims are legion: Bettie Jones, Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Miriam Carey, Freddie Gray, so many more. And, of course, Clevelanders Malissa Williams, Timothy Russell and Tamir Rice.
Make no mistake, police are sometimes put in difficult situations where life-and-death decisions must be made in fractions of a second. Most of us would never want to shoulder such a terrible burden. But the statistics of police killings n the U.S. (at last count, three per day in 2015) have sparked demands for reform.
At times, such reform can be stimulated by the arts, such as the current play at Cleveland Public Theatre. In Incendiaries, conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson, the Hough riots are brought front and center. This co-production by CPT and the Ohio City Theatre Project recounts that 50-year-old conflagration, often in powerful and startling ways.
Robertson is a fiendishly imaginative director, and she stages many of the vignettes in this piece with devastating clarity. The terror that occurs when the police stop a car filed with black occupants, or when a home is assaulted by those who are sworn to protect and serve, can be overwhelming. This effect is augmented by Benjamin Gantose's stark lighting that often throws the performers into a smoky silhouette.
Using public records and testimonies of people on all sides of the events, a picture emerges of an urban nightmare. It is performed by an energetic and talented cast that includes Brittni Shambaugh Addison, Wesley Allen, Ashley Aquilla, Laprise Johnson, Daniel McNamara, Randi Renee and Chris Walker. These folks share the stage with one sturdy table and some folding chairs, which are employed to represent all manner of physical objects.
However, the production suffers from an excess of yelling and general cacophony created by repeated pounding on the table. Sure, riots are often loud and disorienting things, but on stage those techniques lose their power with repetition, eventually numbing the audience.
In addition, this one-act, 60-minute play suffers from "death by Wikipedia." It attempts to cover virtually all the talking points of the riots, from their inception to the weird reports that followed a year or two later, blaming Communist infiltrators! Instead of finding the universal in the personal and the specific, the script almost runs itself to ground by conscientiously trying to document every loose end. And director Robertson seems intent on demonstrating how many ways a table and chairs might be used on stage, which at times gets a bit silly (e.g., two characters are nonsensically compelled to crawl on the upended table like a jungle gym as they speak).
More importantly, a key fact lost in this presentation is that, even in a riot (or a war), much of the societal damage happens away from the immediate carnage. It occurs in homes and bars and bowling alleys where people gather and try to process what is happening. And it festers in the aftermath, when neighborhood residents walk out onto their streets and see that the shops and buildings that made up their daily lives are now charred shells, never to be rebuilt.
If you want to get a visceral sense of how it felt to be swept up in the Hough riots, Incendiaries will take you by the hand through that hellscape. But if you yearn for a deeper look at how that awful week damaged our city's psyche for decades to come, you may have to look elsewhere. Perhaps there is a second act in this play's future.