No hot-button social issue is bigger right now in the US, it’s safe to say, than the fractured relationship between policing and racial justice. A new play takes direct aim at that explosive topic, through the lens of New Orleans’ complex history of law enforcement, crime and punishment, race relations, and the empowerment of women.

The statistics aren’t pretty. Early in 2016, a report issued by Mexico’s Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice named New Orleans the fourth most dangerous city in America. Then, four months into 2017, the Crescent City’s homicide rate inched past that of another notoriously troubled major US city, Chicago.

Nobody hated reading the resulting headlines more than eighty-three-year-old Yvonne Bechet, whose life and work inspired Black and Blue: The Yvonne Bechet Project.

“We get a bad rap about being a dangerous city!” believes Bechet, a lifelong New Orleanian whose background in the mechanics of crime and violence prevention makes her an authority on the subject. “So much of the behavior that police have to deal with here is that of visitors to the city, not that of the citizens of New Orleans.” Bechet hastens to add:

Not that we’re complaining. The city’s well-being depends on tourism, and we don’t want to run them away. But we’re divided between policing tourists on Bourbon Street and in the French Quarter, where everybody comes to let their hair down and their emotions run wild, and citizens in other portions of the city. They say this is the city that care forgot—but we don’t forget to care.

Back in 1968, when she was thirty-four years old and raising four children, Bechet went to work for the New Orleans Police Department, becoming one of the three first African-American female police officers in the city. In short order, she rose up through the ranks to reach the NOPD’s second-highest position, a first that still holds today.

Yvonne Bechet and her fellow officers
Yvonne Bechet and her fellow officers. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Police Department.

Even more important than her pioneering rank was Bechet’s main assignment in those years: She was in charge of the team that established the NOPD Community Relations Division. Through this division, she and fellow officers focused on the prevention of violence, not just a punitive response to it, and as part of that effort organized neighborhood and citywide programs for youth. The division’s initiatives had titles like Talent Competitions, Teen Boxing, Young Explorers, and Officer Friendly.

“We made a big impact on the city,” Bechet says proudly, though she laments that the ground-breaking division lasted only through the ’70s and mid-’80s and has not been reinvented as a policing tool for the present day.

Mat Schwarzman, a writer, specialist in community-based arts, and friend and frequent guest of Bechet’s oldest son Ron, became fascinated with Ms. Bechet’s after-dinner stories about her years as a police officer. Eventually he recorded some six-months-worth of those stories, and the tapes became fodder for a script. He began accepting proposals in the hopes of commissioning a play.

From the dozens of proposals that resulted, a submission by twenty-six-year-old Ariadne Blayde won out. A Midwesterner who studied at New York City’s Fordham University and had lived in New Orleans a scant five years, Blayde was astonished to be chosen, she says, in no small part because she is white.

“I have always been interested in telling stories with a social-justice bent,” Blayde explains.

A project of mine that impressed Mat and Yvonne, I believe, was a one-act inspired by James Meredith, the first black student at Ole Miss, whose arrival there resulted in a riot on campus. They knew I had done work along those lines, so despite competition from several playwrights of color, I think Yvonne leaned toward me because I’m young and a woman—so much of what she accomplished had to do with her being a woman, a mother, and a wife as well as a law-enforcement professional. There’s something very feminine about Yvonne, and I think she identified with the things we have in common.

Blayde spent four or five months doing research and reading up on the politics and culture of the 1960s and ’70s, and on policing theory in general; she asked tough questions of Bechet and her colleagues, including several other black female officers. She’s currently finishing up a final production draft.

Blayde’s drama is in no sense a documentary or stage biography—the writer takes considerable license with the facts of Bechet’s career, and the character representing her is called Anne Broussard in the script. Act One takes place in 1972 as the Civil Rights Movement winds down. The play’s second act, set during the hardcore drug years of the late ’90s, turns that trove of information into a full-fledged debate about what direction NYPD (and, by extension, police departments in similarly troubled cities) will take on the question of prevention versus enforcement. On a policy level, the outcome appears less than promising; but the personal journeys of Blayde’s characters toward a broader vision of social justice convey a palpable hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

Over time, the play convincingly contends, one woman’s influence can change the course of a city.

Under the direction of Troy Poplous, Black and Blue: The Yvonne Bechet Project will go up in January 2018 at Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a performing arts venue and active community center in the city’s predominantly African-American Central City. Post-show forums about police/community interaction will be held after every performance, led by social worker and facilitator Troi Bechet, who is also a regular on local stages and happens to be Yvonne Bechet’s daughter-in-law.

Yvonne Bechet and a group of smiling actors
A "dream team" of local theater artists from eight local companies came together to read the first draft of the play, with Yvonne Bechet in the audience. Photo by Mimi Zarsky. 

Schwarzman, whose role has expanded from commissioning the play to fundraising and press relations for its January run, says that the play has resonance beyond New Orleans. “We’ve already discovered examples of women officers in other American cities whose influence has remained invisible—this play is a window to correct that.”

During a work-in-progress reading of the play this past June, Ms. Bechet joined a packed house—including extended family and dozens of friends, many of them from law enforcement—to hear Blayde’s nascent script and to offer their own perspectives, via post-reading notes and conversations, on the validity of its message.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Black and Blue—aside from its staunch avoidance of liberal orthodoxy about the injustices of police behavior—was a surprising intimacy about the marital tensions of the young “Anne Broussard” (played in the reading by busy local actress LaKesha Glover). Broussard’s tough-minded husband is a patrolman with little sympathy for lawbreakers of any stripe, and her impassioned efforts to convince him that violence prevention can be as effective as direct police action are riveting.

The play acknowledges the remarkable array of innovative police-community interactions that Bechet and her team set in motion. “I look at this play not as the story of my life—that would take much too long!” Bechet offers with a laugh. “No, this is the story of the city of New Orleans at a time when the entire country was going through a lot—things in those years were extremely tense. We try to walk in my shoes at that time.” That elicits a memory: “Of course, the department made me wear one-inch heels, which was pretty silly—not efficient when you’re chasing a suspect with Nikes on!”

“I’ll be eighty-four by the time the play is in progress,” Bechet volunteers with a touch of braggadocio, clearly proud that lifelong cause is getting increasing attention on theatre stages in her own home town and potentially well beyond. “This experience is showing me how many different roles I’ve played in my life,” she adds. “I guess we all have.”