setting & synopsis
It's 2012 — a pivot point, with racial tensions in America escalating and about to explode. The story takes place in the fictitious American college town of Bainbridge, a community that prides itself on progressive politics and inclusion.
Arriving home after a trip, renowned African American scholar CHESTER WASHINGTON III finds the door to his house jammed and his life’s work about to be put to the ultimate test (“Two Gentlemen, Two Suitcases”). Investigating an alleged burglary in an affluent neighborhood, TIM O’CONNOR, a white police officer, assumes Chester is the suspect (“I’m Professor Chester Washington the Third”). Tim arrests Chester (“Black and White and Blue All Over). Later, pondering the incident, Tim feels hints of self-doubt as he “speaks” to his late father about trying to follow in his footsteps (“You Know Me”).
Chester Washington’s daughter CHLOE WASHINGTON, a performance artist and cultural critic, offers her perspective on the arrest in a video that goes viral (“Contempt of Cop”). Preferring to follow a more conventional path to justice, Chester insists that she remove the video from the internet. Meanwhile, as Tim savors a calm moment at an Irish pub, he receives an anonymous text with a link to the 911 call. It makes plain his rash and aggressive conduct and unsettles him (Reprise of “You Know Me”). With very different stories about the arrest emerging, life experience, point of view, and self-preservation are brought into striking relief à la Rashomon (“PRISM: Let Me Shed Some Light”).
U.S. PRESIDENT MICHAEL RIVERA weighs in, and his comments, stripped of context, launch a media circus that overshadows the vital issues — and reveals the media’s lust for spectacle. Tim’s fellow police officers, led by OFFICER CHANDRA JONES, an African American woman, hold a press conference to assert their support for him. Increasingly haunted by his abusive and racist father, who was also a police officer, Tim urges Chandra to hold off, but she doesn’t listen (It’s in the Police Report”). With the media frenzy in high gear, President Rivera invites the professor and the policeman to join him for a beer at the White House, an event the media dubs the “Beer Talks” (“Why Is It the Irish Thrive on Death?”).
Hoping to reconcile with Chester, Tim goes to his house and finds Chloe fixing the jammed front door. They descend into an argument about racial profiling and the 911 call. He suggests Chloe’s social commentary is more angry than productive, and she calls him out on a racist trope. Later, Chloe puts finishing touches on a song interpreting President Rivera’s true feelings behind his official pronouncements (“A Teachable Moment”).
Chester chastises Tim, adding that he is unqualified to teach cultural competency. Tim, contemplating his father’s influence, listens again to the 911 call, reviews his police report, and amends it, expunging Chester’s arrest from the record (Reprise of “You Know Me”).
In the run-up to the “Beer Talks,” a morning talk show team trivializes the Washington/O’Connor incident by speculating about which beer each will drink (“Beer Makes the Man”).
At the White House, Tim apologizes to Chloe. He starts to tell them about amending the police report but is interrupted: he and Chester are led to the Rose Garden. The president calms the waters and sends Chester and Tim on a “Racism in America Listening Tour” with the goal of healing the country’s racial divide (“A Pint of Understanding”).
Chester asks Tim if he would approve of Chloe filming the tour. Tim agrees, but before they can set ground rules, Chloe bursts in and starts filming. They argue, and the topic turns to racism, with Chester stating that it’s in America’s bloodstream and shining a light on Tim’s white privilege and unconscious bias. Tim surprises Chester and Chloe with a copy of the amended police report. They agree there’s a chance that, together, they could create positive change (“Sea Change”).
Tim, stopping by his local pub, is shunned by a group of police officers. Encountering Chloe the next day, the two begin to bond over their love for — and issues with — their fathers. They are spotted together, which sparks speculation about romance on social media. Traveling to the first stop on the listening tour, Chester is unhappy to learn about the social media rumors. Tim asks about Chester’s late wife and is surprised when that prompts an argument between Chester and Chloe; he has unwittingly stepped on a hornet’s nest.
Chloe tells Tim that her mother died when an old man hit the gas instead of the brakes, mowing her down on the sidewalk. As a teen, she asked her father if the man was white. He was, and that planted the notion that her mother was the victim of a hate crime, not an accident. Chester could not countenance that possibility; the subject was off limits.
The listening tour begins (“What’s Past is Present”). A diverse range of people share their experiences with racism. Chloe posts clips to social media, some of which reveal the tensions between Tim and her father. She insists she is capturing truth; Tim says she’s telling half-truths, focusing on the negative.
A pipe bomb explodes during one listening tour town hall, injuring several people including Chloe. Chester, ever the optimist, the leader in the quest for a better America, is desolate, furious — and defeated (“I Am Your Champion No More”).
Appearing on a right-wing TV show, Tim challenges the host’s demagoguery. Chloe, recovering in the hospital, has a “crazy-ass dream” about a romantic relationship with Tim (“Sometimes You Fall”). When she tells her father about it, he is not amused. She tells him she’s surprised that she has actually fallen in love — with hope. Back in Bainbridge, the last stop on the national listening tour, they hear the self-righteous townspeople reject the possibility of a racist incident happening in their midst (“In the People’s Republic of Bainbridge”).
At a White House screening of Chloe’s documentary about the listening tour, which is being live-streamed, Chester is late. As the minutes tick by and Chester remains a no-show, the organizers turn to Chloe and Tim. Momentarily at a loss, they accept the baton and usher in a new era of hope. Chester arrives but watches from the wings (Reprise of “Sea Change”).
Arriving home after the screening, Washington is with the same driver as on the day of the arrest. Suitcase in hand, he puts the key in the lock, and he freezes. He looks at the driver.
Fade to black.