‘Walk in My Shoes’ brings conversations of police, community relations to the stage

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"Walk in My Shoes" features actual police officers and non-actors discussing police-community relations. (Ray Holman/Theater of Witness)

Philadelphia police officers and people of color sharing each of their most intense encounters are featured in a film to be screened Friday at Jefferson University. Theater of Witness Artistic Director Teya Sepinuck created the film of a staged piece, titled “Walk in My Shoes,” with a cast of non-actors in an attempt to bridge social divides between people of color and police.

“Cultivating empathy happens very naturally when people are deeply sharing their own stories,” said Sepinuck.

Sepinuck’s Theater of Witness is a form of “testimonial performance.” Non-actors perform their personal stories to build dialogue between different communities. The theater uses the same process for all its performances.

A particularly dramatic moment of “Walk in My Shoes” finds cast member Hakim telling his family history of police conflict and violence, which at one point resulted in 165 stitches in his head.

“These divided times didn’t just start now. They were embedded in the founding of our country. And my own family’s history was a part of it,” Hakim said onstage.

Other community testimonials include Sophie. She tells how she feels abandoned by the police who she says gave up searching for her missing son.

These stories are performed alongside police officer stories including a veteran of the Iraq war dealing with PTSD on the job. Another officer who works in gang deterrence tells his story of trying not to bring his work home to his wife and children.

“My 5-year-old daughter looks at me and says ‘stay safe daddy,’ ” he said in the performance.

More than delivering lines

“For me it is the power of somebody embodying their own story. The grief, the shame, the accountability, finding the voice, the rage. Whatever it involves,” said Sepinuck.

Sepinuck was inspired to work on this piece in the aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile in July of 2016, which was followed by national public outrage and protests. One protest in Dallas ended with a gunman killing five police officers.

“I was just as devastated as I think everybody was in this nation and I was meditating and then crying and then without any forethought my hand went to my phone and I scrolled down looking for Altovise’s phone number,” Sepinuck said. “Altovise” is Altovise Love-Craighead, a Philadelphia police officer who participated in a Theater of Witness testimonial performance 10 years earlier. They hadn’t spoken since. Sepinuck had been living abroad and didn’t even know if the person at the other end of the text would be Love-Craighead. But it was. Sepinuck proposed a new collaboration based on police and community relations. Love-Craighead responded with an eager “yes.”

“People on both sides were getting killed and this constant divide that was getting wider and wider and it just seemed like a no-brainer,” said Love-Craighead.

“There was no thought process needed. It just had to be done,” she said.

The first step in the process of creating “Walk in My Shoes” was the community members and police officers sharing their personal stories with each other. That process incited dramatic moments.

“I could feel myself tensing up,” says Love-Craighead.

“And I could see the other officers tensing up and we had to remind them that you all were chosen because you all had the ability to see passed this. You’re the ones that can feel and show the empathy so let the story be presented and remain open and they very quickly did that,” she said.

Sepinuck recalls the story of a police officer crying after Hakim revealed his story early in the development process.

“He said ‘I am so sorry, that never should have happened’ and it was so heartfelt and I think Hakim was so blown away that there was a white police officer apologizing for this and I knew ‘OK we could do this.’ ”

Tears are often shed in the confessional nature of Theater of Witness’s work. Although Love-Craighead is not in these performances, she still cries every time she sees the stories being told.

“But I’m okay with that because I think part of what brings people closer is to see us when we’re vulnerable and if we could do it together, it’s easier,” she said.

The filmed performance of “Walk in My Shoes” can be seen November 9 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. in the Eakins lounge at Jefferson University Alumni Hall. The early show is sold out but tickets to the 9 p.m. show are available here.

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