Playwright David McMillan’s Watching O.J. cogently encapsulates the passions and perspectives surrounding the murder trial of ex-professional football star and actor O.J. Simpson - an event which captivated America and much of the Western world this month, 20 years ago.
The story takes place in a blue-collar neighborhood in Los Angeles, playing out in a small dry-cleaning store owned by an older white guy, Harold Levine (Tony Pasqualini), and alternately in an auto repair shop that belongs to Oz Scott (Robert Gossett) an African-American family man who’s built his business from scratch.
The date is October 3, 1995. In Harold’s shop the television is on, as he and millions of other Americans await news of the jury's decision in the double murder of Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Brentwood waiter Ronald Lyle Goldman, at her tony Brentwood condo.
One of those watching is Harold’s indispensible employee Cordia (Angela Bullock), a kind and capable black woman who keeps things running smoothly when Harold, in mourning for his dead daughter, gets distracted. Cordia’s son Jamal (Kareem Ferguson), a college dropout, works as a mechanic for Oz; he’s still carrying a torch for Allison (Tarah Pollock), a young Caucasian physician from Brentwood, who, somewhat ambivalently, shows up at the shop when her car starts making a “funny noise. “
The other significant voices in the mix include Cordia’s friend Kim (Lisa Renee Pitts) whose eldest son is serving time in prison for an armed robbery he did not commit, and Sheila (Kelly Wolf), the wife of a local white cop.
When the play begins everyone pretty much gets along. Harold tells Cordia he’s retiring to Florida and wants to sell his business to her. She is elated. By play’s end, however, their longtime bond of affection and respect has been inalterably broken.
McMillan crams an awful lot into two hours; the first act especially seems top-heavy with subplots as the writer strives to portray the many ways in which race affects people’s thoughts and fates. His aim is a little too evident to make one entirely comfortable with the script.
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On the other hand, the play’s mirroring of our torn society, as well as its relevant themes and credible characters, aptly realized under Keith Szarabajka’s direction, make this shortcoming easy to overlook.
Pitts does a fine job as a woman bitterly consumed by the injustice that has blighted the life of her son. Ferguson is a strong presence as a smart man hemmed in by class and his own inner demons. And Gossett’s Oz is warm and likable. His ready charm brings lightness and humor to the play.
But it is Bullock’s beautifully understated performance as the humane and commonsensical Cordia — not without her own prejudices, though, after all — which anchors the drama and points up its painful timeliness.
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater; through November 8; (818) 858-0440 or watchingoj.brownpapertickets.com.