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Bearing Witness to Daily Injustice

Frank S. Jenkins began to tackle the issue of racial profiling decades before it had a name.

February 11, 2001|EMORY HOLMES II | Emory Holmes II is an occasional contributor to Calendar

One day after his arrival in Los Angeles in August 1968, Seattle poet Frank S. Jenkins looked out the window of his sixth-floor apartment on Pico and Westchester Place and observed a scene whose dramatic potential would take him more than 30 years and 15 drafts to realize.

"I watched the police pull this black man over," Jenkins recalls. "He was well-dressed and driving a nice-looking automobile. They got him out of his car, leaned him against the automobile, searched him, handcuffed him, searched his car and had him standing for about 30 minutes while they called in and got whatever information they wanted on the young man."

At first, the stop did not seem unusual. But one thing struck Jenkins as outrageous and unnecessary: "It was the handcuffs. Why handcuffs?"

Jenkins was convinced that the police had stopped the motorist for no reason other than his race. "After about an hour, they finally unlocked him and let him go on down the street," he says. "And I said, 'What in the world is going on here?' I immediately started writing a play."

Jenkins' first effort, dealing with double standards and issues of debasement and identity in American society, came into being long before such terms as "racial profiling" and "driving while black" entered the vernacular. He called his work "Last Man Out" after a version of hide-and-seek he had learned as a child in Seattle. "I used to live in a mixed neighborhood, and the white kids across the street used to play this game, Last Man Out, and they'd run and holler, 'The last man out is a nigger baby!' And that is what I called my play."

"Last Man Out" developed slowly, in decades-long fits and starts. The poet, who had never written for the stage before, came up with a talkative one-act and a sheath of fragmentary notes.

"The trick to the whole thing was: What happens to a man when he thinks he's achieved something--when he thinks he's got it, the American Dream? And then the policemen take it all away from him in an instant. Just like that."

Over the decades, the issues and events that first inspired, then angered, him on that day in August kept recurring--not only in the news, but also in the lives of friends and acquaintances. So five years ago, Jenkins retrieved his notes, stripped them of their polemical chatter, gave them a catchy new title and shaped them into their final incarnation, his two-act play, "Driving While Black in Beverly Hills," which opens Saturday at L.A.'s Matrix Theatre.

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It was love, not race politics, that was on his mind when Jenkins arrived in Los Angeles. The writer, who now has four books of poetry and two other plays to his credit, had moved from Seattle to be with the woman who would later become his wife, actress Lynn Hamilton, who had arrived a few weeks earlier.

Trained at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Hamilton quickly landed recurring roles in a string of such television shows as "The Waltons," "Roots: The Next Generations" and "Sanford and Son."

Jenkins, meanwhile, continued to write while also working as a movie extra. It was during this time that he first heard the phrase that would eventually become the inspiration for the title of his play. "We used to talk to the motorcycle cops on the set," Jenkins recalls, "and they would tell us about pulling over drivers on Olympic Boulevard. They called it DWO--Driving While Oriental."

Hamilton suggested that Jenkins make yet another attempt at reworking his play about the wronged motorist, and she encouraged her husband to hold a staged reading in the hope of attracting backers.

The couple held the reading on the last Sunday in January 2000. "Frank didn't remind me it was Super Bowl Sunday," Hamilton says. "We didn't expect anyone to come. But a lot of folks did come, and the response was tremendous."

Steven Helgoth, a theatrical producer and owner of a casting company, happened to attend the reading. He was moved by the conflicts and connections between individuals in the play, which revolves around the Nashes, an upper-middle-class couple whose lives are shattered by a routine traffic stop in Beverly Hills.

"I think it is a relationship play," Helgoth said. "It was the relationships between the Nash family and the conflict they have with being African American at that time in history that attracted me to the play. And with all the racial profiling going on, I thought it was very topical right now. I just didn't think this issue was being done."

Helgoth, who produced the play, suggested that Hamilton direct. "They had got a director to do the staged reading, and I felt he missed a lot of things," Helgoth recalls. He later discussed the reading with a cast member, who told him that most of the directorial elements he liked had been suggested by Hamilton. "That got me to thinking, 'Well, if I like the aspects that Lynn brought to the piece, then she should be the one to direct it,' " Helgoth said.

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