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A cop and a Black man walk onto a stage in Philadelphia …

"Walk in my Shoes" rehearsal. September 27, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPurpose
Last week, the internet was a buzz about the Trump supporters at the Mother of All Rallies who invited Black Lives Matter protesters to speak onstage.

Not because it represents any major pendulum shift in the conversations about racial and economic inequality, but the sheer rarity of Black Lives Matter and Trump supporters listening to one another, albeit temporarily, inspires a certain amount of hope.

It’s the kind of hope that Teya Sepinuck, founder and artistic director of Theater of Witness, looks to capitalize upon and recreate this fall with her latest production, “Walk in my Shoes.”

“How can we go beyond something to a place where we do share the same humanity and the same spirit and we can listen to even what feels really hard? That’s what I care about the most,” Sepinuck said.

Her newest production will feature performances by four police officers and four local community members. Each will provide testimonies of their experiences and relationships with law enforcement and the people of Philadelphia.

By sharing these stories, “Walk in my Shoes” aims to highlight how some of the various types of trauma from these encounters affect and connect both groups.

“The issue of breathing has come up and it’s been a big theme because of Eric Gardner,” Sepinuck said. “When I [asked] police, ‘what do you think of when you think of breathing?’ the first thing they said was CPR.” In the show, the performers will mime doing CPR on each other in slow motion and “these intimate connections begin to happen, picking each other up.”

(Courtesy image)

To help bring the show to life, Sepinuck enlisted the help of Philadelphia police inspector and former Theater of Witness performer Altovise Love-Craighead. Despite nearly a decade gap in communication, Sepinuck was inspired to reach out to Love-Craighead after African American deaths by police continued to skyrocket and officers in Dallas were gunned down last summer.

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Since then, Sepinuck held nearly half a dozen listening circles with police officers and community members, to not only learn their stories, but also identify those best suited to perform in this type of environment — which she notes isn’t for everyone.

Regardless of the challenges, Sepinuck firmly believes theatre is the best way to present these stories.

“It’s for me about bearing witness,” she said. “I don’t work with actors ever. I work with real people, so you know when someone is telling their story. And it’s not just the story you’re listening to, you’re listing to their soul energy. You make a connection.”

"I work with real people, so you know when someone is telling their story."
Teya Sepinuck

Sepinuck will present “Walk in my Shoes” for the stage, but she hopes that these stories will live on long after the final curtain call. Her big dream for this production is to film the show and tour it for a year or two to various prisons, community groups, schools and police stations in the city.

Ideally, performers from “Walk in my Shoes” will conduct workshops in the community using portions of the filmed performance.

“In most of my work we’ve made films and what that’s allowed is for performers to tour with the films after the performance are done touring,” Sepinuck said. “In fact, with [previous show] “Living with Life,” we made a film and then a woman, Kay Harris, who was on the faculty at Temple in criminology department, she started bringing students into the prison and [a performer from] the show co-led the workshops for the Temple students. They’re still doing it from 2001.”

To make this a reality for “Walk in my Shoes,” Theater of Witness will have to raise more money. While her previous shows had funding earlier into production and rehearsals, she dove in headfirst for this show with Love-Craighead — in part because of a sense of urgency for this kind of storytelling and healing.

“We’re planting a seed. It’s not going to fix anything, it’s not the answer,” Sepinuck said, “but it’s one of many, many tools and hopefully there are ripple effects.”

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Those seeds started with the cast. Sepinuck shared the story about one of her performers, Hakim Ali, who’s had a strained relationship with the police for most of his life: When Ali met one of the police officers performing in the show and shook his hand, Ali later confided the magnitude of significance in being civil without needing to sneak in additional defensive tactics into his handshake.

Ultimately, Sepinuck aims to inspire both compassion and activism with this production.

“What happens in most of the way we live now is that we talk from opinions and our belief systems, but I think when we can feel some empathy for somebody else, it begins to open up a new place,” she said. “It’s a new possibility of connection.”

“Walk in my Shoes” will run from Nov. 10 to 11 at the Painted Bride. Find more info here.



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