Conversation: 'Tasha, A Monologue About Police-Terror Victim Natasha McKenna to Premiere In Oakland is Written and Performed by Cat Brooks
I had a chance to catch up with Anti Police-Terror Project co-founder Cat Brooks to talk to her about a play she's developing about Natasha McKenna. Natasha was killed by sheriff's in Fairfax County Virginia in January of this year. Brooks will be premiering her Natasha monologue titled "'Tasha" at an event this Saturday and Sunday at Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland, CA.
Who is Natasha McKenna?
Natasha McKenna was the mother of a seven-year old. She suffered from schizophrenia. She was 37 years old [when she was murdered]. In January, just days before Yuvette Henderson was killed [by Emeryville Police] she called the police because she had been assaulted. When the police got to her - because of her mental state - they took her to the hospital and somewhere in the interaction they say that she assaulted a police officer and so they arrested her. This is important because it was clear they were dealing with mental health issues which is why they took her to the hospital to begin with.
"She was a real person with real feelings who experienced this horrific horrific crime. She was a person, right? She’s not just a name on a placard or a hashtag, she’s a human being."
They took her to the Fairfax County Jail and put her in a cell by herself and she lost it and so they decided to extract her from the cell and they were going to take her to a hospital and so six guys, five whom were in [hazmat] suits violently assaulted her for 45 minutes in an attempt to get her handcuffed and onto a gurney. She repeatedly said that she thought they were coming to kill her. In the process of that, they ended up tasing her 4 times. She died as a result of the tasing. Even though the coroner said she died because of how many times they tased her and they went against every [protocol of how to use the taser], even from the company who makes the taser, no charges are being brought against the police officers.
As we have seen in the recent past, media and social media focus on male victims of police brutality and that’s now changing due to efforts such as #SayHerName. Before it was almost as if cisgendered males were believed to be the most relatable subjects. However, in your activism and in this current work you are presenting you are choosing to focus on somebody who is suffering from mental health challenges and who is a Black Woman . . . Why is this topic important to you and why do you think this is a problem that affects us all?
Well I’m a Black Woman and I’m a Black Woman who has bad days. I really think it started with Yuvette’s murder honestly. I’ve been doing this work for a long time and a vast majority of that work has been centered around holding up the lives of Black Men. When Yuvette was murdered, I don’t know if it’s because we’re close in age or if it’s because we’re both mothers or it was right around the corner from my house or all those things combined and just synergistically - because I think of the Black Lives Matter movement being led by women and unapologetically so - some space opened up to really fit in the fact that we are being murdered by police at a godawful rate too and somewhere I knew that and always knew that and I’ve had my own experiences with police-terror but there just wasn’t the space. It had yet to be opened up. All of those things combined hit me in a particular way. That’s been the primary focus of my work.
My recent decision to leave my full-time regular job and really focus on being an artist and activist and merging those two worlds together, I’ve chosen to focus specifically on telling the stories of those [people] whose stories don’t get told.
What the Black community does not need is for it to be Black Men against Black Women. Like who suffers the most? I’m not interested in that and that’s a very dangerous conversation. I think the conversation is about - if we’re going to get liberated - it’s got to be all of us. In order for real liberation to happen we have to tell the whole story and so that means talking about women, transgender and queer people too.
Tell us about this weekend’s Monologue? How did you choose the topic and what did the process of writing the piece entail?
Again, I made this decision to shift my life in major ways and to really focus on my art. I’m a poet. Initially the idea I had was to tell a bunch of the women's stories, a series of monologues, Rekia, Natasha, Yuvette, Sandra. I didn’t know who I was going to write first and I was literally in bed, it was three o’clock in the morning and Natasha - this is going to sound crazy. If you’re an artist this doesn’t sound crazy but it might sound crazy to other people. Natasha just
". . .if we’re going to get liberated - it’s got to be all of us. In order for real liberation to happen we have to tell the whole story and so that means talking about women, transgender and queer people too."
started talking - in my head - really loudly, to the point where I had to get up and write what she was saying. It was just sort of free form. I just typed and I didn’t edit and I just let it all come out. Next I watched the video in pieces. I could never watch it all the way through in one shot. It’s incredibly painful, the video that the sheriff’s put out about her murder. I watched that repeatedly. I watched a lot of videos of people who [suffer from] schizophrenia. And I cried a lot. Then it became clear to me that it’s not going to be a story of all these different woman, I wanted to tell Natasha’s story so I made the commitment to do that. Once I made the commitment out loud to do that the community has really responded with extreme support. That’s how this weekend came about.
This weekend are “artists response to police violence” put on by NAKA dance company who are the same folks who brought us the The Anastasio Project, which is an incredibly powerful piece around police-terror. There are several other artists participating. I think it should be a pretty incredible night at Eastside Arts Alliance.
Is this the premiere of the monologue?
It’s the first time performing it publicly. I’ve been working pretty intensely with a director and coach and we’ll see what happens.
Will you develop this into a full play in the future?
Yes, that’s the end goal. I want to have the first draft of the play completed in February of 2016 and we’ll have our first public reading in February as well.
Many people know you as a co-founder of Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project and you’re a seasoned grassroots activist. How important is creating art when it comes to the struggle for liberation?
Art is central to my life. Period. I’ve been on the stage since I was eight years old. It’s what I got my degree in. It’s what I thought I was going to be doing for the rest of my life and then two things occurred. I had my daughter and Oscar Grant got killed. Those two things consumed me so I sacrificed my art and now I’m back to it. Artist’s are the conscience of the community. We just are. I’ve always believed that my entire life. I’ve always felt that I’m supposed to use my talent or my gifts or this calling to make the world a better place, to say things that can’t be said in other places, to challenge the status quo, to force people to think and to take risks. To be an unapologetic truth teller. To me it goes hand-in-hand, particularly in the Bay Area every single major movement that we have has this beautiful cultural parallel path that happens: Murals and music and poetry and dance. It’s one of the things that I love about being here.
I know you’re very busy rushing to a panel right now. Just one more quick question. If people could take just one thing from this weekend’s monologue, what do you wish it to be?
I hope they walk away with Natasha’s humanity. She was a real person with real feelings who experienced this horrific horrific crime. She was a person, right? She’s not just a name on a placard or a hashtag, she’s a human being.
Interview by Frank Sosa @sosanista
Additional sources about Natasha McKenna: