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Staging Reality

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books and culture

Staging Reality

Ferguson dramatizes and enlivens the grand jury testimony from the Michael Brown killing. October 31, 2017
Arts and Culture

A sensational new off-Broadway play, which I recently saw in a preview, offers a reminder of the power of live theater in an intimate space. I love big-spectacle films, Broadway musicals, and binge-worthy videos, but nothing compares with sitting 10 feet from an ensemble of actors giving life to a finely crafted script.

Ferguson is a work of “verbatim theater,” since all its words were spoken by real people. The play’s dialogue comes from the transcript of the grand jury proceedings following the August 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. In that sense, the play is also a work of journalism. The knowledge that we are witnessing a true story, told verbatim, enhances our excitement. But Ferguson also succeeds as a work of dramatic art.

The playwright, Phelim McAleer, together with his wife and collaborator, Ann McElhinney, has created riveting documentaries that challenge progressive orthodoxies. In Fracknation (2013), McAleer gets a gun pulled on him by a local in rural Pennsylvania who feels threatened by his investigation into the falsehoods and distortions that fed the campaign to ban hydraulic fracturing. McAleer’s penchant for danger and controversy in the pursuit of truth is present in Ferguson as well.

McAleer clearly seeks to vindicate the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson. Hence his not-so-subtle subtitle, Truth Matters. The truth that mattered to me about this tragic incident came from the Wall Street Journal’s reporting in March 2015 about the Justice Department’s findings in the case. If investigators in a DOJ run by Attorney General Eric Holder had found evidence that Darren Wilson should have been indicted, their report would surely have said so. Instead, it said the opposite. The DOJ’s March 4, 2015, 86-page memorandum goes into painstaking detail—based on “physical, ballistic, forensic, and crime evidence; medical reports and autopsy reports,” and the testimony of “more than 100 purported eyewitness”—that uphold the grand jury’s decision and Wilson’s account of what happened. The report’s concluding section consists of one sentence: “For the reasons set forth above, this matter lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed.”

What happened on that August 2014 day is unfortunately far from closed in the minds of many. The events in Ferguson helped inspire the Black Lives Matter movement. In his bestselling memoir, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nahesi Coates takes it for granted that if a white police officer kills a black male, a murder has occurred; other details are irrelevant. With the logic of a lynch mob, Coates records his outrage on learning “that the killers [sic] of Michael Brown would go free.”

When I first heard about Ferguson the play, I was concerned that it would be a dry recital of the facts, but it turned out to be much more compelling. McAleer has crafted a 90-minute drama that slowly builds tension to a shattering climax—and there were other surprises along the way. I don’t know if the dramatic arc roughly parallels what happened in the grand jury sessions, or whether the playwright has reordered the events for theatrical purposes. But the dramatic effect of the enlivened text is stunning.

Of the superb cast, standouts include Ian Campbell Dunn, who combines just the right combination of anguish and intensity as Officer Wilson; Cedric Benjamin and Chaundre Hall-Broomfield, African-American actors who play friends of Michael Brown with great personal appeal; and Renika Williams, a young African-American actress who helps deliver the goods in the play’s climactic scene. In a venue with fewer than 70 seats, the $20 admission price means that the actors are working for peanuts —not the first time that I’ve marveled at the dedication of downtown unknowns who do superb work for so little. Tickets are still available for the limited run that ends on November 5, and a reopening is planned in a different venue.

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, cast members and director Jerry Dixon, who is African-American, pushed back against McAleer and his script. They staged the play, we read, to highlight the fact that “the grand jury procedure was inherently flawed, particularly in terms of what they consider the confrontational or leading ways some witnesses were interrogated by the prosecution.” We then read that “the acting and direction undercut some of Mr. McAleer’s message and show what really happened, they [cast and director] say.”

The spectator will note that the legal proceedings contained some flaws, but all such tribunals are flawed to some degree, as those of us who’ve taken some interest in them can tell you. Nothing I saw indicated that the play’s acting or direction undermines its message. Director Dixon and his actors prove to be McAleer’s worthy collaborators, and the playwright has reason to be grateful to them.

Photo by Clay Anderson

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