"Cops and Robbers," the new one-man play by hip-hop artist-turned police officer Jinho "The Piper" Ferreira, was borne of frustration.
After Oscar Grant was shot by a BART police officer in 2009, Ferreira, a West Oakland native, attended some of the protests with his wife. They heard people denouncing cops for being racist and not caring about the community. To Ferreira, some of the venting was "preaching to the choir."
He imagined a scenario for fixing the dysfunctional divide between police and the black community: "Identify every bad cop in the country and get them fired." But then he asked himself, "Who would replace them? And if none of us would replace them, what the hell are we doing here?"
That question sparked the energetic and intellectually voracious Ferreira's surprising decision to become a cop. He enrolled in the Alameda County Sheriff's Academy and landed a job on the force. But Ferreira, now in his 30s, wanted to do more. In a four-day "purge" of writing he penned "Cops and Robbers."
Opening this weekend at Berkeley's Marsh theater, the one-man show dissects an officer-involved shooting through the perspectives of 17 characters. While Ferreira's piece is often confrontational, he hopes it inspires conversations about race, police use of force, the media and black-on-black crime. The characters are drawn from people Ferreira knew growing up in West Oakland during the crack epidemic of the 1990s, as well as others he's met since becoming a deputy sheriff.
"I've walked a lot of these paths," said Ferreira. "And I believe I have brought what I've learned about these worlds to the stage."
Ferreira's play certainly doesn't preach to any one choir. The versatile actor plays all 17 parts, including a fiercely ambitious female TV reporter, the desperate parolee shot by the officer, a sociopathic street thug and a bombastic conservative radio host.
Through twists and turns, audiences learn that some of the "good guys" aren't so good while the "bad guys" are much better or much worse than anyone could imagine.
Ferreira is comfortable with such contradictions because, he admits, he embodies a fair number himself: "My story is kind of all over the place," he said.
His divorced single mother chased crack dealers out of their backyard while pushing her son to embrace reading. At Berkeley High, he found football and played well enough there and at Contra Costa College to earn a scholarship to Eastern Illinois University. But he returned to Oakland after a year. "I still needed to do some growing up."
He describes his 20s as somewhat aimless, hanging out with neighborhood friends who were "not the most clean-cut" individuals. He also lost friends and neighbors to violence, suicide and prison.
But Ferreira was no slacker. He poured himself into hip-hop, partnering with Richmond guitarist David Lopez to form the group Flipsyde. They enjoyed international success, with their album "We the People" going gold in India. While making music, Ferreira also earned a degree in African-American studies at San Francisco State and married Dawn Williams, a doctoral student in education at UC Berkeley, with whom he has three children.
The decision to go into law enforcement was agonizing but also Ferreira's "most courageous." He and Dawn worried friends would see him as a traitor to their community. He also didn't know if other officers would want to work with him, given he'd written lyrics that criticized police.
To his surprise, he found enlightened new colleagues, including Lt. Marty Neideffer, who drafted Ferreira to work for the new youth center he was opening in San Leandro.
"A sergeant told me I should look at this guy: He's amazing, he's talented, he's a rapper and he's a good cop," said Neideffer, who is among Ferreira's law enforcement colleagues who have seen "Cops and Robbers" and appreciate how it aims to break people out of their "ideological silos."
Ferreira's directors, husband and wife Lew Levinson and Ami Zins, hope a successful run at the Marsh will lead Ferreira to more opportunities to perform his play to diverse groups.
Some of the "dudes from the block" enjoyed the show, Ferreira said. He is proud that they probably encountered new viewpoints.
"That's what I feel I'm doing with this play, exposing people to different perspectives," Ferreira said. "You can't cover much ground if you're only talking to people who think like you."
East Bay Profile
Who: Jinho "The Piper" Ferreira
What: Actor, writer, hip-hop artist, Alameda County sheriff's deputy
Play: Written and performed by Ferreira, "Cops and Robbers" is a one-man show that plays Aug. 16 to Sept. 13 at the Marsh Berkeley Arts Center, 2120 Allston Way. Tickets are $20-$35. 510-841-1903, http://themarsh.org