To the Yale Community: [fill in the blanks yourself]

You’ve got mail.

And of course, it’s from Ronnell.

I still remember my first Ronnell Higgins email (or at least, my Gmail does). It was August 29, 2010, Camp Yale freshman year and classes hadn’t even started.

This was the first alert for me and my newly minted classmates about the goings-on outside of Old Campus, which didn’t seem to include mandatory videos about sex and race and uncomfortable frat parties for kids like me who didn’t party in high school.

And it didn’t seem that bad. The perpetrator, a nonviolent robber, had been caught almost instantly. The incident seemed like a fluke and a pretty harmless one at that.

But a mere week later, the words of Ronnell Higgins struck our inboxes and our hearts once again. This time, the impact was a little bigger. Two incidents over the weekend? In the afternoon?

Let’s set one thing straight. There is no single person who writes these emails and fills them in with the little details that determine our emotional response. How we feel about the city we live in is determined by nothing more than a Mad Lib with a morbid twist, filled out by whoever happens to be on desk duty when the crime is cleared to be published. Ronnell himself rarely writes them.

Maybe it’s the lack of detail, then, the absence of a voice or recognizable style or person-ness that makes the impact of these messages so ambiguous. An impersonality that makes them almost laughable, even though you don’t want to admit it.

When you read a Ronnell email, don’t you see it in your head? In a certain way? And the people aren’t shapeless, raceless blobs. So who do you decide that they are?

On April 9, 2011 at 4:51 p.m., the Yale community received the following email:

“A Faculty member was approached in his yard by a male wearing dark clothing and wearing a mask while a woman with shiny purple dye in her hair acted as a lookout.”

I read the above email to six Yale students, none of whom remembered it or had a preconceived image of the scene. Two thought that the woman with purple dye in her hair was white. Four thought she was black. They all visualized the scene differently.

And they all laughed.

“Street Scenes” at the Yale Cabaret seeks to explore these differences. Conceived and co-directed by Colin Mannex DRA ’13 and Maayan Strauss ART ’12, it delves into the morass of competing urges members of our community have in perceiving crime reports and the images they evoke.

Strauss became curious about our police chief’s style of communication when she read about an incident involving a friend of hers. After hearing her friend describe the exact way the crime played out, she said, she began to question the mental images she creates when reading crime blasts.

“We are left with a space to interpret those descriptions, which are pretty dry and sometimes unclear,” Strauss said. “And I wondered how different people imagine the same description and what the [common threads are] in how the Yale community [imagines] it.”

Despite her background as a photography student, Strauss was determined to create a dramatic interpretation of this dilemma, she said. The work needed to be the outcome of a conversation that included different perspectives and the collaborative nature of drama lent itself more fully to this than did the static art of photography, she said.

When exploring the tension between hard factual representation and descriptive imagination, Strauss and Mannex wanted to focus on the racial implications of the images we create internally. This further motivated their emphasis on collaborative action.

“Creating visuality for something from which the visuality is inherently removed is a very loaded and very charged question,” Strauss explained. “So this needed to be a result of people confronting each other with their different identities.”

And, Mannex added, a primary factor in determining “these different identities” needed to be race to begin the dialogue about the stereotypes that accompany it. The images we create in our minds when reading about crime in New Haven, Mannex said, are not entirely random and speculative – they are clearly impacted by our biases.

“Street Scenes” attempts to be more than a physical representation of crime. The scenes deal as much with race, bias, stereotype and political correctness as they do with the hard facts. They fill in the details Ronnell leaves out and necessarily open themselves up to analysis of what the inclusion of this extra information does to change our understanding.

It was starting to feel like it had a lot in common with those mandatory Camp Yale videos.

But Street Scenes does not provide the answers to these big questions.

The show’s main problem lies in its excessive focus on the goal. Meanwhile, it seems to lose sight of an effective means of conveying its message.

Seeking to incorporate a broad range of perspectives, from the academic to the emotional and the black to the white, one of the show’s motifs is the idea of opening conversation between two of these differing viewpoints. These are literal conversations. In other words (those of a high school English teacher), it’s not showing. It’s telling.

Though these conversations do tap into topics that are often undiscussed and unexplored, the relationships portrayed were often too contrived for the tensions between each pair to take on real meaning. The ivory tower academic filled with doubtful political correctness is always in pleasant combat with the tell-it-like-it-is realist who was, you know, chill about neglecting the feelings of others. One tiptoes around the racial assumptions he or she makes in reading a Ronnell email and the other questions whether it would be better if the email just said the race of the perpetrator. But what do they really know, they claim. Again and again.

The show has its redeeming points too. The ending — three emotional soliloquies — finally makes a stab at capturing the real impact of these emails and their representations of New Haven crime. In the last of these speeches, Tameka Norris ART ‘12 recounts the murder of a young man who worked at a bike shop frequented by Yale students. He may not have been a Yalie, she wailed, but we were still emotionally impacted by his death and should have received more information about it.

The email, as the Mad Lib dictates, simply read:

“The victim is not a member of the Yale community.”

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