Beyond Miss Anne: Toward an Abolitionist Vision

By Kristen Wright (bio)

My talk "Beyond Miss Anne: Toward an Abolitionist Vision" was presented during the second ATHE 2020 plenary, "Envisioning Resilience in Performance." In this talk, I showed an excerpt of a ten-minute play that I wrote for Cornell University's 10 Minute Play Festival titled Miss Anne. The production was directed by graduate student Elaigwu Ameh and stars undergraduates Dejah Abdiel and Allen Porterie, as Sergeant Vivian Ennis and Officer Kevin Jackson, respectively, along with staff member and Cornell PhD Kenlyn Peters as Officer Stacey Locatelli. The video linked below shows a presentation I gave as a part of a Performance Studies Focus Group roundtable, conceived as a companion piece to my plenary talk. Here, I expand upon the theoretical framework that I offered at the plenary and talk in more detail about my creative process.

"Miss Anne" is an African American Vernacular English term that is used to refer to a condescending, racist white woman, and refers specifically to Officer Locatelli, a white female officer who kills a mentally ill man while on a call. Jackson, a young Black officer who is being trained by Stacey, witnesses the murder and becomes fixated on killing her in retribution. Sergeant Ennis, the play's protagonist, attempts to stop Kevin from killing Stacey by retracing the steps of her investigation into the killing. The theme for the festival was "Unbound," and over the course of the play, Vivian is released from the positive conceptions that she had of her role as a member of law enforcement and its efficacy as a system. The evidence is real life: Stacey was inspired by Betty Shelby, a Tulsa officer who weaponized her white womanhood to justify the killing of Terence Crutcher. Vivian is inspired by Alicia White, a young Black female sergeant who was one of Freddie Gray's killers in Baltimore. And Kevin was inspired by Christopher Dorner, a former naval and LAPD officer who killed several people in retribution for the LAPD's murder of a mentally ill man.

The recording that you will see is a dress rehearsal, filmed on my smartphone. This echoes the practice of cop-watching, a form of surveillance that allows citizens to turn a lens on the police and empower their communities. This dress rehearsal also serves as a lens into the rehearsal process. The actors were still learning their lines, and you, the audience, will see a difference between the subtitles and the dialogue.

This recording was meant to be ephemeral, a simple resource for evaluating the progress of the production. Until the beginning of this summer I had not thought about it since 2017. But it resurfaced for me as rebellions against anti-Black police violence erupted throughout the country and calls for police abolition became more pointed. The public has been radicalized. There are fewer calls to lock up bad cops, and more calls to destroy the system that allows policing to exist. ATHE grappled with how to respond to the rebellions, and the plenaries, along with this panel, emerged to respond to a need. Nearly three years have passed since I recorded this dress rehearsal in a nearly empty theatre, and my own politics have shifted. 

As this work develops, I intend to shift the focus of it beyond the titular "Miss Anne" and its focus on individual police officers and the violence of one white woman. I will show how an entire community is shaped by policing, and how communities can be transformed through abolition. The working title of the full-length play that will emerge out of Miss Anne is A Living Newspaper, inspired by the work of the Federal Theatre Project. "Living newspapers" were dramaturgical tools pioneered during the Russian Revolution, and employed heavily in the United States during the Great Depression, to present controversial events in a factual manner.

I want to explore how the conversation around policing has deepened in a post–Black Lives Matter world. What are the dynamics that have shaped the Summer 2020 rebellions that erupted in the wake of George Floyd's lynching, and continue in cities like Portland? A Living Newspaper will center the fallout surrounding the lynching of a female victim, as the murder of Breonna Taylor has shown that Black women are not immune from state violence, and yet their deaths do not pull the same focus as those of Black cishet men. It will examine the tensions between abolitionist organizers like Mariame Kaba in the trenches and liberal reformers like Shaun King who are using the moment to raise their personal profiles. Audiences will see racist police-union bosses, a cable news anchor Chris A. Lemon (a hybrid of CNN anchors Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon) who expresses sympathy for protestors while stigmatizing "looters," and the political prisoners who stare past barbed wire, anticipating when they will also be liberated. Instead of ending with resignation, I intend to show what happens after Sergeant Ennis leaves the police force: she goes in the community to work with abolitionist organizers, divulging law-enforcement secrets, and assisting in the formation of a world without police. As we move forward, I encourage everyone gathered here to de-center whiteness and the white gaze in your work, pushing toward radical Black horizons in theory and practice. But before we go forward, we take a step back in time. Lights up on an interrogation room.

Access the video here: