Amy Cooper is a bad actor. Her recent starring role in Central Park’s Ramble revealed her thespian limitations to an almost embarrassing degree. Her vocal management is a real problem. She falls into the trap of going “high” at the start, giving her nowhere else to go, always a source of discomfort for the audience. She fails to modulate her voice to convey her own innocence and stir compassion for her plight—the tears simply don’t feel genuine. She stumbles through her blocking, lunging and then retreating upstage awkwardly. She mismanages her prop, the poor rescue dog who unwittingly was the immediate excuse for her performance. And she telegraphs her lines in advance, short-circuiting the element of surprise. All in all, this was a technically sub-amateur performance, one of the worst debuts New York has seen in some time.
Yes, as a performance it was more Sarah Palin on The Masked Singer than Renee Fleming at the Met. And yet Amy Cooper knew that the quality of the performance would not matter one bit. Critics be damned. She really only had to reach for a few stock phrases, tap into timeworn tropes, and make sure her gender and race registered. She knew what the great actors know—the audience brings its own biases, histories, memories, loves, and hates to the performance just as the actor does. She knew which wires to trip. Technical ability didn’t matter when this was the play. It is an old script, battered, dog-eared, and blood-stained, and endlessly re-staged. The role itself is more powerful than the quality of its enactment.
As horrifying as the George Floyd incident is—death so gruesome as to upstage the Ahmaud Aubery case in Georgia—it is a variation on a long history we have seen so many times before, first in lynching photograph postcards, now from cell phone video. Another black man, whose assumed criminality merits the death penalty without question or due process, dies. The only variation was the unusual stage direction—the knee to the neck, minute after excruciating minute. The chorus could only question the police, try to rouse some deeply hidden conscience in the four officers, and point the phone. Violence linked to protests will allow whites to once again pretend that it isn’t their own problem to solve.
Amy Cooper, despite her grating technical performance, actually shows us more than we are used to seeing. Her role goes back to the days of chattel slavery, when preserving white womanhood justified any action against black manhood. It continued beyond emancipation, leading to thousands of lynchings whether the “victims” had been victimized or not. Ida B. Wells writing for their lives, Emmitt Till’s mother Mamie leaving her son’s casket open, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee—none of these appeals to common humanity seem to have changed the script. On the stage in Central Park, Amy Cooper knows this.
She shows she knows, first, when she flouts the leash law and then takes umbrage at being called on it by a black man. And, of course, when she makes clear that she will call the cops: “I’m going to tell them there is an African American man threatening my life,” she says. She delivers this line in a smirking tone that conveys to Christian Cooper, an accomplished editor and author who found himself birding while black, that she knows full well what that could mean for him, and that he knows too. This is valuable. It should put to rest the notion that racism is a construct only in the heads of the oppressed.
The theatrical symbol is the mask. One of tears, for tragedy, another of laughs, for comedy. As in so many other areas of our society in what we now must call the Trump Era, the mask has slipped, or rather it has been torn in two and trampled upon in the mud. One of the qualities of Trump as a performer—and he very much sees himself as one—is that he actually does not perform at all. He is incapable of irony, of subtlety, of humor, of empathy. His cruelty is never conceived of as a joke gone awry. He never apologizes. His petty grievances, jealousies, racisms, and never ending need for affirmation are always on the surface, never probed, never analyzed, never reconsidered. He does not act at all. He will not even pretend to be President and wear a mask during a pandemic.
So Amy Cooper knew she could play the role very poorly and still Christian Cooper could die. She knew this because Tamir Rice had died. Philando Castile had died. Eric Garner had died. She knew of these deaths and of many more. Shortly after, an officer in Minnesota knew that he could kill George Floyd. He did not have to act the role of a police officer, or of an empathetic fellow citizen.
The one thing Amy Cooper did to enhance her performance was to lower her COVID-19-induced mask so that she could be heard clearly. When she approaches Christian Cooper, he implores her, twice, not to come close to him. We are in a pandemic, after all. But Amy Cooper had another mask to let fall. When she declared her intentions to call the police, the rest of the performance mattered not. We see it all in the open, the attitude that allows, yes, even accepts and encourages, a knee to the neck in Minnesota.