“Cops and Robbers,” a play written and performed by Jinho “the Piper” Ferreira, features the complicated relationship between the Black community, law enforcement, accountability and violence. In the provocative one-man show, Piper takes his audience for a ride, telling the story of a racially-charged cop shooting, its media coverage and polarizing community context. The two-act piece was crafted to instigate, to weigh heavily on the hearts of viewers; it begs to be questioned.
Although “Cops and Robbers” offers insightful commentary on the sometimes questionable demonization of law enforcement in minority neighborhoods, its decidedly misguided imaging of Black women works to perpetuate culturally violent images and generally frame Black women’s role within black culture as solely instrumental.
Piper impressively plays the roles of 17 features; however, the only female role was a caricature of an out-of-touch woman news reporter. Piper claims that all of the features represented were caricatures, including the male characters. Nonetheless, there were Black female features who were represented through the dialogue of other characters, and these female features were in the margins.
Black Feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins states that maintaining the invisibility of Black women and their production of knowledge has been instrumental in maintaining social inequalities. The three invisible Black female features in Piper’s “Cops and Robbers” were a 13 year-old girl forced into prostitution then murdered, her “yapping” crackhead aunt who allowed the pimping of her niece, and a nameless 18-month-old baby girl whose incestuous father compared her abused body to a football. With this contemptuous representation of Black women in the margins, the play usurps Black women’s agency – effectively infantilizing them and maintaining harmful images that, as Collins laments, reinforce systems of inequity.
Even further, in its two-to-three-sentence exposition about the sexual violence inflicted upon the Black female body, “Cops and Robbers” fashions women as mere accessories. Reference to the brutality is ornamental detail used to startle, shock and jar the audience. With no mention of the trauma that accompanies such abuse it’s clear that the play’s misogynoir had purely instrumental value.
The play was male-centric, although women are major victims and contributors to the dysfunction of the Black community Piper sought to highlight. Aside from the exploitation of the Black female bodies for cringe-worthy purposes, when a female body was associated with worth, it was only worth defined in relation to men. To give some background on the plot, the community of Oakland exploded when a Black cop shot and murdered a Black ex-convict and “pimp.” One of the Black ex-convict’s victims was the 13-year-old niece of the Black cop.
In an attempt to reconcile the virulent misogyny of the graphic depictions of Black female bodies, the monologue presented the sexual violence as an offense committed against the cop. Though it would seem that with development this would be addressed, the play missed the mark. The murderous cop thought it was his duty to take out the convict because his niece was the victim of pimping. Unfortunately, as Stanford history professor Estelle B. Freedman notes in her award winning book “Redefining Rape,” historical definitions of rape presented the act as a loss to a man, conveying ownership over a wife’s or daughter’s body. The cop’s rage stemmed from the very male-centric notion of paternity and family honor that Freedman problematizes, reminding audiences of outdated notions of male entitlement to the female body.
When asked about the intentionality behind the show’s portrayal of women in the Q&A that took place after the play, Piper said he had none. He remarked, “I guess I just got to get in touch with my feminine side.” Piper made the decision to portray women, but did not think of the images he was presenting. It seems that in his position of privilege, he felt that it wasn’t his place to take that into account.
Piper’s wife chimed in to say that in not acknowledging women, Piper made space for women to share their narratives. He failed to own and challenge the play’s misogyny then placed the onus on women to fill the gap in a patriarchal discourse. In her famous commentary on gender privilege and systems of oppression “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, the ever-wise Audre Lorde reminds us, “Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance, and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.”
If “Cops and Robbers” playwright and star Jinho “the Piper” Ferreira sought to effectively produce a politically-charged social commentary aimed to transform an audience and start conversations, then he should not have presented a two-dimensional, controlling image of Black women as uncommented-upon victims at the hands of men. The treatment of Black female bodies is a topic that he presents, but never offered full commentary on, in the play and during the Q&A. This is yet another example of the permeation of sexist ideas in the American psyche.
Shows like “Cops and Robbers,” although organic and authentically rooted in East Oakland’s community narrative, ought to be written with a certain degree of responsibility. This production brought important points about the Black community to the forefront of its audience members’ consciousness; however, it maintained male-centric definitions of self, community and society. The Black community cannot be transformed without the thoughtful inclusion of Black women and other marginalized identities within the community.
This piece was co-authored by Shelby Sinclair. Contact her at shelbys8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. Contact Mysia Anderson at mysia ‘at’ stanford.edu.