Play addresses police violence in the black community

By Liz Lebron

“When I wake up, I feel disappointed that I woke up.” ~ Sharon Watkins, Mother of Philip Watkins, “The (M)others.”

At the conclusion of the staged reading of “The (M)others,” Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies Diego Villada, who directed the reading, asked the actors to describe how they felt in one word. The fictional Sharon Watkins felt “emotional.” The real Sharon Watkins expressed gratitude.

“It means so much that you’re willing to listen,” said Watkins, “that you care.”

Sharon Watkins answers audience questions after "The (M)others" reading at New College.
Sharon Watkins answers audience questions after “The (M)others” reading at New College.

Watkins, whose son Phillip Watkins died when two San Jose police officers shot him in 2015, is one of four mothers playwright Nikki Yeboah features in her play about police violence. Yeboah is an assistant professor of at San José State University’s Communications Studies Department, and she adapted interviews she conducted with mothers who lost their children to police violence into “The (M)others.” Watkins was present at the College Hall reading at the insistence of Yeboah.

“In order to be able to do this play, there was a stipulation,” said Villada. “That stipulation was placed on us by the playwright. The playwright said, ‘In order to do this play, you have to have one of the mothers in attendance.’”

The subject matter elicited strong emotions from audience members and actors alike, including Queen Zabriskie, who admitted to feeling “uneasy” after reading the part of Dionne Smith-Downs, mother of James Earl Rivera Jr. Zabriskie is a professor of sociology at New College and a member of the Black History Month Planning Committee.

To ease the tension, Villada led audience members in a brief relaxation exercise before moderating a discussion about the play. One audience member’s recollection of her mother’s experience with police violence prompted a discussion about how police interact with those suffering from mental illness.

“I realized how many times families asked for help and got this,” said Yeboah in reference to Phillip Watkins, who was suffering from depression at the time of his death. “Your comments made me think about that because you talk about your own mother, the intersections of police violence and mental health. For Sharon and for Kimberly, these were mental health issues … that should have been dealt with differently.”

Watkins is now part of a group of mothers who care for other families that lose a loved one to police violence. They offer emotional support and legal resources to help families navigate the aftermath of a police shooting. She and the other mothers share the burden of a bond none of them wanted but all of them cherish.

“As of this Monday, February 11th, it’s four years for Phil,” shared Watkins, “and I know that I can cry and they won’t say, ‘Don’t cry. He doesn’t want you sad.’ I know he doesn’t want me sad, but I’m sad anyway. And they get it.”

Several attendees expressed anger at the issues “The (M)others” addresses, and Watkins urged audience members to channel their anger into action.

“I want you to take the pain that you feel, and I want it to inspire you to do something about it,” implored Watkins. “I want the pain and the empathy you feel, I want it to ignite you into making a difference.”

— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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