‘Chasing Mehserle’ brilliant, not preachy

Midway through Chinaka Hodge’s marvelous new play “Chasing Mehserle” at Intersection for the Arts, the issue of white privilege surfaces, and it is raised by the only white character in the play, nutso activist Lyle (Dan Wolf).

It is one of many complex, heavily charged issues in a riveting work that focuses, at least on one level, on the aftermath of the fatal New Year’s Eve shooting of young, black Oscar Grant III by white BART policeman Johannes Mehserle.

It’s also one of many places in the must-see play where Hodge easily could have lapsed into polemic. For that, as she surely knows, one can turn on Pacifica Radio, and be told in short order how open-minded human beings dedicated to justice and freedom “should” think.

But Hodge being brilliant, and “Chasing Mehserle” being art, it resists temptation to hit audiences over the head with blunt rhetoric or proselytize. Instead, Hodge uses copious amounts of humor and ambiguity to tell her ever-gripping tale.

In a story that could have been presented as black and white, the only incontrovertible realities are that unarmed Grant was shot in the back by Mehserle while lying face down on the platform of Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station; and that life is anything but a bowl of cherries for many underprivileged black men in Oakland and America.

Most everything else is a divine mixture of fiction and truth, out-of-the-box hilarity and gripping tragedy, known and unknown.

Dialogue and emotions often turn on a dime, as “Chasing Mehserle’s” two main characters, Watts (Michael Wayne Turner III) and his mom, Willie (Halili Knox), play out a co-dependent relationship that is both outrageous and plausible.

Directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Sean San Jose, Turner is remarkable, dynamic and real. Knox is both heart-warming and fierce, and the energized Wolf creates the perfect dysfunctional cohort for Turner’s maximally obsessed character. It’s hard not to love them all.

Every supporting actor — Danez Smith, Jonathan Williams, Tommy James Shepherd Jr., Tristan Cunningham and Isiah Thompson — deserves kudos.

DJ Juan Wonway Posibul Amador uses his beats and soundscape to help audiences go deep into the story.

“Chasing Mehserle,” presented with support from Intersection’s Residency Program, Campo Santo, the Living World Project, Youth Speaks and a host of open-minded foundations, is a not-to-be-missed achievement.

Its impact resonates, and its questions churn long after patrons leave the theater.


Chasing Mehserle

Where: Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, through May 24

Tickets: $25


Note: More performances are at 8 p.m. May 29-31 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.; MehserleChinaka HodgeMarc Bamuthi Joseph

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