Virginia Murphy

Virginia Murphy is founder and executive director of Playback Memphis. She has a bachelor's degree in special education from Boston College and a master's in counseling psychology with a concentration in drama therapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies.

An officer and an ex-offender face past trauma in Playback

By Published: April 16, 2019 8:37 AM CT

Officer Chris Street had 17 years on the Memphis Police force and was a 20-year veteran who had served tours of duty in Iraq, Somalia and Kuwait. He had seen and survived unimaginable horrors. He saw the glass not half empty or full, but shattered. And he blamed people who didn’t look like him. A learned behavior.

Terric Edwards had known more time inside jail than out. He had been a gangster and dope dealer. He had seen and survived unimaginable horrors. He was drinking every day, as he had since he was 9 years old, to forget. He hated and fought cops. That was just what you did to survive.

I met Street and Edwards when they were told to participate in a community-police relations-building project launched by Playback Memphis in 2014.

<strong>Virginia Murphy</strong>

Virginia Murphy

It was Deputy Director Anthony Berryhill from the Memphis Police Department who first said yes to what most would call a crazy idea, to bring police officers together with those who have spent a lifetime running from them to share stories and learn improvisational theater. Berryhill believed that Playback gave officers a safe space to unpack their hurt and restore their faith in humanity.

DeAndre Brown, director of Lifeline to Success, which counsels and trains ex-offenders, knew the men and women he served also had hurt to unpack. And he knew they hated the police and this was a problem, for everyone.

So following the first rule of improv, these two men accepted the offer and said, “Yes, let’s.”

When Chris Street appeared in my Playback office for his interview, he looked so much like the Incredible Hulk I almost fainted. He sat on the couch, his eyes scanning the room looking like he wanted to get out of there. He politely listened as I pitched the experience. I tried to emphasize the food and not the storytelling, improv and vulnerability pieces of the program. It’s a difficult sell for the target audience. When I finished, he told me that, while it sounded like a “good program” – he definitely did not think it was a good program – he “would have to pass.” But I managed, miraculously, to convince him to attend one session.

Playback is a model in which participants share stories from their lives, then watch as the stories are played back by a team of actors and musicians. In his first Playback experience, Street did not share the details of his story – they were more than he or we could bear – but he did share his vulnerability. As the actors brought the tenderness of his heart to life on stage, his tears welcomed others’ tears, giving everyone permission to lay down their armor. It was such a heavy weight. The relief was palpable.

Afterwards when I thanked him for sharing courageously, he looked at me like I had lost my mind. He actually tried to quit the program that day and again throughout the sessions. When you are unaccustomed to it, vulnerability comes with a mean hangover. His wife implored him to stay, though. His family could feel that he was listening more and angry less. He was better for having participated.

There is an expression we use in Playback to help us keep the space safe. “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.” It’s basically an invitation to choose curiosity and compassion over reactionary judgement, shame and blame.

Terric used to howl at this expression, furl his eyebrows and say, “I’m turning to wonder what would happen if I clicked out and popped a cap in his ass.” Humor is a powerful coping mechanism, but as time passed, Terric shared parts of his story, things that were buried deep, and unintentionally widened Chris Street's circle of compassion. Chris felt Terric’s story as if it was his own. Kinship rising.

In police and prison culture, vulnerability and empathy have a bad rap. In both, there is an unspoken code: Not only are you not allowed to express your feelings (with the exception of anger), you are not allowed to even have feelings. Being in your feelings can get you killed, it’s true. But isn’t the capacity for tenderness what makes us human?  What a tension to hold. To do your job, to survive in your reality, requires you to check your humanity at the door.

Over the course of two years, these two men, Chris and Terric, with many others, have chosen to lay down their discomfort, judgment, fear and hatred of one another – of "the other" – to build community together. Being worthy of one another’s trust is a high calling.

There are still times when the chasm of our divide suddenly feels like it might engulf all of us, that the trust and goodwill that we feel could just fly out the window in this current world order. And yet every month we keep showing up to listen and share. To build a healing narrative.

Chris now has an appointment to permanently remove the rebel flag tattoo on his arm.  It no longer represents his heart. He shares his story and helps lead Cultural Humility trainings for new recruits at the Memphis Police Department’s Training Academy. He listens more and fights less. He says Playback is his prescription for peace.

Terric has found sobriety and stable housing. He’s reunited with his children. He is now a paid Playback Memphis Professional Ensemble member, sharing the practice with youth in schools to build trauma-informed awareness. He listens more and fights less. He says Playback is his prescription for peace.

For these two men to cross such a difficult divide in divisive times and still become worthy of one another’s trust reveals that change is possible. Just knowing this helps me orient towards the light. And for this I am grateful.

Over the years, Playback Memphis has brought hundreds of stories to life – stories of longing and loss, of resilience and forgiveness, of heartbreak and triumph. I have been awed by how much joy and relief Playback brings to people. This simple act of listening with empathy and bravely attempting to give artistic shape and meaning to someone’s story – it is life giving.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com


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