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Abusing Their Power Because They Can

June 22, 2001, Friday

THEATER REVIEW; Abusing Their Power Because They Can


The pertinence to contemporary New Yorkers of ''Sus,'' a 1979 drama by the English playwright Barrie Keeffe, is unassailable. The play is about the police interrogation of a black man who has been mistakenly arrested for the murder of his wife, and his treatment by the cops makes it clear that as much as anything else his race marks him as guilty.

The arrested man, whose name is Delroy, is so used to being brought in on ''sus'' -- suspicion of this or that -- that he laughs when he's picked up, comments on the d´cor of an interview room he's never seen before and fences casually with the two white officers who question him as though this were all bogus business as usual.

That he ends up being treated with the crassest insensitivity, gleefully humiliated and eventually beaten is testimony that racial profiling existed long before we had a name for it. And the crisp current production by the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater, directed by Woodie King Jr., will remind most in the audience of names like Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima. The show runs through June 30 at the Bouwerie Lane Theater in the East Village.

The power of this well-made, unsubtle play survives even though police procedural dramas on television have made the setting more than familiar. And that is largely because of how it exposes an innate will to be powerfully indecent among those who are given the opportunity.

That Delroy's wife died gruesomely, that he didn't even know she was dead when he was brought in, that he is keening in agony through much of the play's latter half -- none of this makes an impression on Karn (Harris Berlinsky), the senior investigator, or his younger sidekick, Wilby (Jason Crowl), except that they find means to exploit it. At one point Wilby explains to Delroy that he can sympathize because he once lost a dog, a detail that returns later in the play in even more grotesque fashion.

The cops in ''Sus'' are undeniably bigots, but Delroy (Jolie Garrett), a large man with long braided hair who speaks in a Caribbean patois, is in many ways an ordinary fellow, not particularly distinguished as a character and really only incidentally black. The fact is that he is not unjustly brought in for questioning; the initial evidence points to him as a suspect.

Written as Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was empowered, with the British economy suffering and immigration at a flood tide, Mr. Keeffe's play is mostly political, an outcry against emerging fascism, not simple racism.

''You see, what this country needs is a strong government to sort out the laws, bring order,'' Karn explains, sounding a lot like someone extolling the virtues of Hitler or Mussolini. ''Sus,'' in fact, takes place on election night, and Karn is giddy with excitement as Wilby delivers bulletins reporting that the liberals in office will be dispatched, that taxpayers will no longer be supporting immigrants ''on the dole'' and that the new Tory government will support law and order and raise police salaries.

Mr. Keeffe's point has less to do with the villainy of the police than with their sense that they've been given permission to indulge it. Mr. King's unfussy production on a set by Robert Joel Schwartz that is nakedly bleak even by police interrogation room standards is focused on allowing the officers to demean themselves.

As Karn, Mr. Berlinsky belies a facade of James Mason-ish ´lan, with an oily presumption of worldliness and superiority and the occasional outburst of ignorant rage. Mr. Crowl is quite good in the role of a fascist youth, a dope who is eager to exercise privilege of place yet must be obsequious to a superior.

And Mr. Garrett, who initially uses a scampy smile and a swagger to deflect the offensiveness of his tormentors, is bruisingly reduced to a victim. By the end he is a carved-out shell, sagging as if his spine were jellied, an innocent man who has been gravely punished and whose freedom has been compromised forever.


By Barrie Keeffe; directed by Woodie King Jr.; sets by Robert Joel Schwartz; costumes by Susan Soetaert; lighting by Izzy Einsidler; fight direction by Joseph Travers; assistant director, Amy Wagner. Presented by the Jean Cocteau Repertory, David Fuller, producing artistic director. At the Bouwerie Lane Theater, 330 Bowery, at Bond Street, East Village.

WITH: Jolie Garrett (Delroy), Harris Berlinsky (Karn) and Jason Crowl (Wilby).

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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