Teen Actors Take On Racism And Police Violence In A New Play About The Dallas Ambush

A year after five police officers were killed during an otherwise peaceful protest, the doctor who treated many of the injured reflects on his role as a healer and an African-American man.

By Jill AmentJuly 7, 2017 1:08 pm,

As the sun was setting on the city of Dallas on July 7, 2016, few noticed the SUV parked sideways on Lamar Street, its flashers blinking.

The street was virtually empty, cleared out for a protest in response to the police shootings of two black men a few days earlier in Louisiana and Minnesota. The Dallas protest was one of many scheduled in big cities across the nation.  

As the protest ended, the first shots rang out, then a fusillade. In the flurry of more than 200 bullets, it was hard to tell where the shots were coming from, and who were the good guys.

Nearly 100 police officers were on the scene, but no one was sure how many shooters there were. Five law enforcement officers were killed, seven other officers and two civilians were injured, as ambulances and police sirens began to drown out the sound of gunfire.

There was a standoff with a lone gunman holed up in a nearby college building. After trying for more than two hours to negotiate a surrender, the Dallas police chief ordered a robot packed with explosives to go into the building and take out the gunman. The tactic worked, but the night was far from over.

Dr. Brian Williams was in charge of the emergency room at Parkland Hospital. Williams suddenly found himself not just on the front lines of history, but at the center of circumstances he had been thinking about for weeks.

Long before this night of July 7 , Williams had been shaken by stories of black men being killed by police. Now, it was up to him to care for seven critically injured officers shot by someone looking for revenge.

Williams kept his emotions in check as he worked against the clock to save lives.

Days later, Williams sat on a panel at a press conference, alongside nurses and other doctors just like him. But there was one important difference: everyone else on that panel was white.  

Truth is, Williams didn’t really want to be there. He’s never been big on the spotlight, but he decided this press conference was part of his duty – a duty that went beyond his role as a medical doctor; a duty to heal.

“I understand the anger and the frustration and distrust of law enforcement,” Williams said at the press conference. “But they are not the problem. The problem is the lack of open discussions about the impact of race relations in this country.”

Sometime later, at a young actors’ theater in another part of Dallas, an informal discussion among teenagers evolved into an idea for a play. It would be a kind of documentary written for the stage.

The goal of “Shots Fired” was to capture aspects of the events of July 7 that didn’t make it to the front pages. The young actors wanted to tell those stories, so they interviewed key players in the drama. One of them was Dr. Williams.

Williams, and 18-year-old actor De’Aveyon Murphy who plays the doctor in the play, spoke with Texas Standard Host David Brown.

Murphy says he and fellow actors interviewed Williams to prepare for the play.

“He told us he grew up afraid to speak up and talk. …He said he was comfortable now talking about these things,” Murphy says. “As a black man myself, I’ve been through some things – racial discrimination, things like that – and I was very afraid to speak up about those things. But hearing him talk about how he was afraid too, and how we should speak up [allowed] me to believe I can have a voice.”

UT Southwestern Medical Center

Dr. Brian Williams

Williams says caring for multiple casualties is common in his emergency room. But usually those casualties aren’t police officers.

“[T]here clearly [were] other issues occurring within the community that night that made this particular incident much different.”

Williams says seeing himself portrayed on stage was an unusual experience, particularly hearing Murphy speak his words.

“[Murphy] was saying things I said in the interview that I apparently had not said to my wife,” Williams says. “And she was very moved by his monologue. She started crying.”

Murphy says Williams’ wife encouraged the doctor to speak publicly about the shooting and its role in the larger conversation about police relations with African Americans.

Just as Williams’ wife helped him find his voice, Murphy says the play gave the members of his theater company a way to express theirs.

“We as teens are kind of underestimated,” Murphy says. “When the shootings first happened, no one ever came up to us and asked us how we felt about it. Most adults felt like we as teenagers looked past it. And we were actually affected, too, by what was happening.”

Murphy says the Dallas police shootings, and other shootings and protests that preceded them, had a deep impact on him and encouraged him to look at the situation from many perspectives.

“When we came into this show, we all thought a little differently about police brutality and racial discrimination,” Murphy says. “Why did some people think this wasn’t a big issue, or why did some people think that this is a really big issue? Try to go from each perspective.”

Only year after the shootings, Williams says it isn’t surprising that Dallas is still dealing with the incident’s various complexities.

“It’s only been a year. There [are] a lot of issues that need to be addressed and disentangled,” Williams says. “It’s very optimistic for that to all happen within a year. But I’m very confident that things are happening within Dallas.”

He says “Shots Fired” gives him hope.
“These kids, what they’ve done is they give me hope for the future. …I left that theater really thinking deeply about these issues of race and violence, and this chasm that exists between black Americans and law enforcement.”


Written by Shelly Brisbin.