Theater Murder Mystery
ON FRIDAY NIGHT, OCTOBER 26, following the performance of Frank Condon and Ron Sossi’s docudrama, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles, many in the cast were milling about at an opening-night reception for a comedy playing in the same building. Darius Ever Truly had just finished playing the co-defendant Bobby Seale in the docudrama, about eight “radicals” accused of conspiring to incite the bloody riot that engulfed the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At the reception, Truly asked his colleagues and theater staff to join him at a Halloween party 17 blocks south on Bentley Avenue, near the junction of Sepulveda and Venice boulevards.
Truly asked house manager Tiffany Simms if she would go, but she had a bad feeling about the late-night party. “Something just said, ‘No, don’t go,’ ” Simms told the L.A. Weekly. Hours earlier, Simms had met Truly’s cousin, a young woman who had come to see the play. She recalls how Truly’s cousin was the only person to accompany him to the party.
Truly was never seen alive again by his colleagues. Yet nobody connected to the theater had any inkling of the violent tragedy that had befallen him until shortly before Saturday’s performance, when Truly failed to show up and the stage manager and two cast members couldn’t reach him.
He was so reliable and so invested in his Bobby Seale role that his failure to at least call in sick created concern among the theater management. As time wore on, their concern turned to dread. Though the stage manager began contacting local hospitals, nobody thought they should be contacting the coroner instead. According to the theater’s artistic director, Sossi, the show was performed on Saturday night with an understudy playing Seale, script in hand.
On Sunday, cast members were horrified to find several MySpace pages containing the entry “Darius Ever Truly: RIP.” The devastating news was confirmed by the LAPD Media Relations Web site, which reported that Truly and his cousin were both stabbed on Saturday at 3:20 a.m. in the 3700 block of Bentley Avenue between Culver City and Mar Vista. Truly’s cousin had been hospitalized and then released in stable condition. Officials say partygoers found Truly collapsed and not breathing on the sidewalk, bleeding from chest wounds. According to the LAPD’s homicide posting, a man in dark clothes was seen fleeing south on Bentley; “apparently after an argument with the victims,” adds a CBS2 news report.
IT WAS LESS THAN AN HOUR before the scheduled 2 p.m. Sunday matinee performance that the cast of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial learned of the tragedy. Director Condon recalls, “I quickly got everyone in a circle and tried to calm people down, but there were a couple of actors who were so beside themselves they couldn’t go on. We had to cancel that performance. It was like a bomb had gone off: 40 people, many sobbing, some on the floor. It looked like a war zone without the blood.”
The play chronicles the 1969 kangaroo-court convictions of the Chicago Eight, young co-defendants challenging the war in Vietnam. They included Tom Hayden, co-founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, who went on to serve in the California Legislature; Yippie counterculture leader Jerry Rubin, who later became a stockbroker; and Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Neither Seale nor the other defendants advocated the violence that rocked the 1968 Democratic Convention. The prosecutors were accused of being politically motivated, and the convictions of what would later become the Chicago Seven were later overturned.
Seale, however, did believe that violence against blacks should be met with violence. Actor John Pollono, who plays Hayden, says Truly was deeply invested in Seale’s character. “We were talking about how relevant the play is today — but that he saw hope, the fact that we could talk about racism showed how far things had gone,” says Pollono. “And it showed that the younger generations were not so racist — so every generation is getting better.”
The cast has speculated that his killer may have been a gang member, but police have not confirmed that. Truly’s cousin, whose identity police are withholding, visited the theater to explain what had happened that horrible night — her arm in a sling. A theater staff member says she told them Truly “had died trying to save my life.”
Informed by the L.A. Weekly that Truly’s cousin credits him with saving her life, LAPD homicide Detective Mike DePasquale scoffed in frustration, saying that when detectives questioned her, she suddenly came down with amnesia: “We find her covered in blood, and she tells us she never saw or heard anything.” Another witness has been just as uncooperative. Many theater people have speculated that the two witnesses fear retribution by gangs who operate in Culver City and Mar Vista.
AFTER LEAVING MEMPHIS to study theater at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, Truly came to Los Angeles in early 2006. His father, Larry Truly, says that as a child, his son was an avid reader with a kind, outgoing disposition — “a good kid, he never got into trouble, outside of the usual ways kids get into trouble.”
The first of two plays he was cast in while here was The America Play at Pasadena’s Theater @ Boston Court. Truly played Brazil, the tormented son of an African-American Lincoln impersonator. Brazil winds up digging in the sand, searching for his heritage, which may have paved Truly’s way for the role of Seale in The Chicago Conspiracy Trial.
After one matinee performance of The America Play, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Suzan-Lori Parks participated in a post-play discussion, sharing the stage with the cast, including Truly.
“His Brazil was stunning,” Parks said, on learning of Truly’s death. “What a beautiful and necessary talent. We so needed him.”
Condon was similarly impressed when Truly auditioned for The Chicago Conspiracy Trial.
“He wasn’t a seasoned actor, so I convinced [Sossi] that it was a gut feeling that I wanted to cast him,” he says. “He had this fiery nature and wonderful smile.”
House manager Tiffany Simms recalls, “We started a beautiful friendship” that included going out to a local bar with the cast. Simms says she’s been tormented by her decision not to join him at the fatal Halloween party — wondering if, had she been there, things might have turned out differently.
Before every performance, Truly was the self-appointed leader in a prayer for all of the defendants as a warm-up exercise, “to get the blood flowing,” explains Pollono. After some actors were put off by Truly’s religiosity, he adjusted the exercise to draw not from “the spirit of God” but “from the strength of the defendants.”
David Mauer, who plays Jerry Rubin, also spent large chunks of time with Truly. Mauer argues that, at least for Truly, the play’s not the thing.
“He rode a bus from Echo Park to the Odyssey Theatre for no money at all — he did catering when he could, and lived on unemployment — not because he believed in the play, but because he believed in the ideals that the play stood for,” Mauer says. “What he could do to unite the black community so they weren’t killing each other — that’s what he wanted more than anything else.”
Actor Marlon Ward warned Truly against going to the Halloween party, based on Ward’s general uneasiness about house parties where there’s no security and little control. Ward plays the custodian who, under the judge’s order, shackles Seale to a courtroom chair and gags him. Sometimes Truly would stay over at Ward’s Encino apartment so they could drive to the theater together.
“We were very close,” Ward says. “This was more than a play to him — he was trying to get a message across about how African-Americans are treated in a lot of situations. He scared me sometimes. It’s as though he was Bobby Seale. He wanted to be more than an actor. He wanted to make a difference in the world. He was a good man and a great actor.”