Sticks & Stones

'Sticks & Stones' presented at Bewley's Café Theatre, in association with Purple Heart and Insomnia Productions.

'Sticks & Stones' presented at Bewley's Café Theatre, in association with Purple Heart and Insomnia Productions.

In California in 1991, Rodney King’s abuse at the hands of the LAPD was a shot of video heard round the world. The blatant use of force – in the form of repeated and relentless attack on the part of police with their batons, 56 blows all told – sparked a nationwide reaction; all the way over on the other side of the country, almost one year later, I remember being let go from work in the middle of the day due to threats of riots in reaction to acquittal of the police officers involved.

One expects that Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan’s one act play, Sticks and Stones, would have knocked audiences for six had it opened even up to a year after the event on that California freeway. Even in 1994, when it originally hit the boards as part of a Showtime Network festival of one-act plays, it can be supposed to have been stunningly frank. But that’s back in the day, perhaps right on the edge of the wave that became the casual dropping of the N-bomb, right before the saturation of gangsta rap was complete, just that bit before the premiere of Oz, and well before The Wire. Whilst to this day calling someone a nigger isn’t exactly something that’s been absorbed into the parlance, hearing people use it in a fictional atmosphere isn’t that big a deal.

Laurence Lowry’s DiPalma is up to his neck in "big deal." The policeman has shot a young black teenager in the line of duty, and the press, due to his unapologetic stance, has been making a meal of him. He visits the high profile, top dollar lawyer Klein (Owen Mulhall) as, unsatisfied with the resources placed at his disposal by his department, he’s desperately seeking someone who’ll get him off on a charge less than murder.

The conversation between the two is littered with racial epithets, thanks to DiPalma’s equal opportunity racism. While the writing is taut, and the cop’s monologue concerning the sequence of events that lead up to the shooting is an actor’s dream (and Lowry executes it wonderfully well), it is hard to see beyond the polemic to what seems to be the conscience of the piece, which is: is it ever okay to be a racist? This begs a number of questions: was DiPalma’s point of view valid? Is the white American middle class the new Black, and are they allowed to be angry? And also: can a word ever only be a word? Should we be inured to the use of the word nigger, or spic, or kike, or paddy? Does the extreme caution with which we approach these words actually give them their power? The play is too invested in its plot plan to do more than throw out these ideas and leave them in our laps. We are given compelling ideas executed in a mundane, Law & Order fashion that doesn’t tease them out in a satisfactory way.

Lowry is more secure in his American accent than is Mulhall, which affects the pace and rhythm of the piece. It’s difficult to pin down the provenance of either, and while Lowry seems to err on the side of the Bronx rather than the character’s Windy City origins, Mulhall often sounds to be slipping into a Southern elision that is incongruous. This is important: it’s like playing Christy Mahon with a Ballsbridge burr. Words are the essence of this piece, and everything about them counts, not the least the way they sound and the way in which they are delivered.

Rodney King was over the legal limit of intoxication when he was driving the vehicle out of which he was pulled, only to be pummelled. He provoked a high-speed chase into residential areas because a drunk driving offence would violate his parole. The crux of the problem is that he wasn’t attacked because he was dangerous, it was argued, but because he was black. The teen in Sticks and Stones was a criminal who happened to be black. Neither the real man nor the fictional boy merited the extreme action that resulted; each should have had the opportunity to be given the full whack of the justice system, rather than that of a baton or a bullet. The play, mimicking justice, blindly sets the conflict before us, but with such a short time at its disposal, can’t adequately deal with the myriad questions it so tantalisingly proposes.

Susan Conley is an arts correspondent and novelist.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Sticks & Stones by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan

22 February - 13 March, 2010

Produced by Bewley's Café Theatre, in association with Purple Heart and Insomnia Productions
In Bewley's Café Theatre

Directed by Les Martin

Lighting design: Colm Maher

With: Larry Lowry and Owen Mulhall