Valley Players have done it again with their production of Napa playwright Jerry Levitin’s “I’d Kill for a Parking Place” now playing at Lincoln Theater. This is the fourth show of theirs I’ve seen and the fourth time I’ve come away wondering why there aren’t more than about 50 people in the cavernous auditorium. This is challenging, thought-provoking, quality theater that deserves more recognition.
The play centers on Judge Gold, an aging San Francisco traffic court judge, played perfectly by an affable, avuncular Paul Cotten. Judge Gold’s colleague is Detective Jefferson, San Francisco Police Department’s first black detective. Jefferson is investigating a string of murders, which Levitin loosely based on the Zebra Killings in the Bay Area in 1972 and 1973. Judge Gold, as well as another attorney, Scott, played by Valley Players’ regular Richard Pallaziol, counsels Jefferson on how to collect evidence and strategies to use in order to get a conviction.
Levitin uses these three characters to reflect on how he saw the criminal justice system. And his conclusions are disturbing. At one point, Judge Gold and Scott refer to their jobs as a game. A game! And they are playing this game with people’s lives — people who are usually disadvantaged or disenfranchised. They don’t seem to care about the consequences of their actions; the truth of guilt or innocence isn’t relevant. The most important thing is winning the game, regardless of the facts.
However, Paul Cotten, as Judge Gold, is a blast in the courtroom. Anyone who has lived in San Francisco will commiserate with his tirades, which are extensive and witty, about the absurdity of trying to park legally in a city where “no parking” zones are rarely painted and every “no parking” sign is obscured by a tree. So, he lets the majority of the people protesting off the hook due to these inconsistencies. Despite his benevolence, and the joy he takes in being kind to the hapless drivers, this gets him into some trouble with a journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle who publishes a piece about his judicial manner that has devastating consequences.
The court scenes are particularly challenging for a small acting company as its not economical to have one actor playing each defendant for just a one- or two-line interaction. This gives Tesia Bell, Joseph Bussey and Samira Mariami the opportunity to transform themselves beyond all recognition multiple times during the show. And they run the gamut from an arthritic grandmother you would never want to see behind the wheel; to a dentist with a painful, piercing British accent; to an Amazonian black woman with an attitude, who has one of the best lines ever. When asked what her birthday is she says, “July 5th.” What year? The lawyer asks. “Every year” she replies, without missing a beat. She is timeless.
I’m a sucker for a good set, and as is becoming usual, Valley Players does not disappoint. Deftly and economically two rotating sets flip every scene, becoming the judge’s chambers, the courtroom, a dentist’s office and a garage. There are period green leather and wood chairs and in the hysterical—and slightly apropos of nothing—second scene in a dentist’s office, they procured a perfectly preserved electric dental chair in canary yellow. Then there’s the black phone with a dial and a cord—remember those?—on the judge’s desk. They even found the right ringtone, back when the phone had an actual bell inside it.
Levitin may chuckle knowing that the furnishings of his salad days, so painstakingly recreated in this play, are now considered “period” rather than “contemporary” by a writer who was born four years after the play takes place.
Levitin also made a point of choosing music from the mid 1970s as interludes during scene changes to deepen the nostalgia. “Lowrider” (1975) from Cheech & Chong’s movie Up in Smoke; the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (1976) and Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” (1975) are all played while the crew, which seemed as large as the cast, swiveled the sets and placed and removed tables and chairs.
Now, about race. The crux of the play is a court case in which a young black man named Chill is accused of selling heroin, and the the burden of proof relies on eyewitness testimony, which as explained by Scott and Judge Gold, is notoriously faulty. In fact, Detective Jefferson says most white people think — and this made me cringe — that “all black people look alike.” If all black people look alike, how can you identify any of them?
I know that a lot worse was probably said about black people before the Black Lives Matter movement. But given that movement, its particularly brave to stage a play that grapples with this issue, honestly representing the tension between white and black people in the 1970s.
The fact that judges and lawyers all flippantly think they are playing a game can’t be overstated. And they are drunk on the power they have when playing that game. At one point, Gold says, “if I didn’t have this robe, nobody would give me the time of day.”
Their position of power over those less fortunate feeds their sense of self-worth, and it reaffirms every horrible thing we know to be true about our legal system.
From lawyers whose ego inflation or deflation depends on whether they get the conviction or exoneration regardless of their client’s guilt or innocence; to the police officers who will lie to make themselves look good; to the judges who have the freedom and power to mete out justice as they see fit, only in accordance with their own preconceptions and prejudices—what this play makes clear is that justice is never blind.
“I’d Kill for a Park Place” plays at Lincoln Theater through April 27. Tickets are available at www.lincolntheater.com.