When Professor Sarah Waisvisz first read Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s intensely intimate play Witness Shift, she cried.
Witness Shift challenges the modern-day policing system with an alternate, community-based model of handling distress calls. Waisviz’s adaptation of St. Bernard’s play lives at the tension point between theatre and film, subverting the often violent interactions between racialized people and the police.
Directed by Queen’s professor Waisvisz and starring actor Uche Ama as a senior dispatcher, the nuanced one-woman show was produced as a part of Obsidian Theatre and CBC’s 21 Black Futures project, spearheaded by Artistic Director Mumbi Tindyebwa. The national project was a collaboration between 21 playwrights, 21 directors, and 21 actors who responded to the question: “What is the future of Blackness?”
The film was rehearsed entirely through Zoom and was shot in Toronto while Waisvisz directed online because of the provincial lockdown.
In an interview with The Journal, Professor Waisvisz discussed the importance of the piece and how it contributes to global conversations on racial justice.
Waisvisz said her initial reaction to the script was driven by its compassion.
“It portrayed a world not too far in the future from our own in which Black bodies and everyone’s bodies are treated with respect,” Waisvisz said.
This world, where calling the police is not the go-to for distress-related calls, directly addresses questions surrounding what defunding the police would look and feel like.
“It proposes a world in which instead of calling the police, you call a community dispatch service and experts on the line will either advise you directly or transfer your call to someone who can help you with your specific issue,” Waisvisz said.
“In this world, the police still exist, but they are called for police-specific things,” Waisvisz said. “They are presumably doing very particular specialized policing work in this world.”
Humanity and intrinsic support are at the core of Witness Shift. Ama’s character leads a rookie through a day as a community dispatcher, describing the process of responding to calls without escalating the situation.
“The characters in this play show that you can be trained to do certain things, but that you have a core generous spirit inside you,” Waisvisz said. “If you begin to look at the humanity in everyone, you’ll know what to do to support them.”
The story imagines a future of Blackness that is close to our present reality, and in many ways, feels like a parallel universe rather than a glance 50 years into the future.
“The goal is to present this world that is already possible, we just need to prioritize it,” Waisvisz said. “We have it in us to have a different world and I don’t know what prevents it, but it’s not for lack of potential.”
One of the most important facets of Witness Shift is how it acts in resistance to the police brutality that has been present in both America and Canada for decades. Although conversations about social justice have been heightened since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Professor Waisvisz offers that the interplay between race and policing has always been dangerous.
“People I know have found themselves at the intersection of mental health distress and their racial identity and a racist culture,” Waisvisz said. “I just wish those things didn’t collide in dangerous ways, but often they do.”
In her Director’s Note, Waisvisz dedicates Witness Shift to “Regis, Breonna, Abdirahman and everyone who deserved a different system.”
The director also spoke about personal experience with the policing system and how it has impacted people close to her.
“We all know someone who experiences mental health difficulties, and we all know that if you’re a racialized person, it’s 7,000 times more scary,” Waisvisz said. “We felt a kind of duty to take this script really seriously.”
Witness Shift is available for viewing on CBC Gem, along with the other contributions to the 21 Black Futures Project.
This article has been updated to reflect that Witness Shift is a play.
The Journal regrets the error
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