The play Ferguson, an adaptation of the grand jury testimony in the case of police officer Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown, was bound to cause controversy. For one thing, the play is being mounted at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, a city that has its own storied history of cop-on-black racial violence.
For another, the so-called “verbatim theater” script was written by Irish contrarian documentary filmmaker Pehlim McAleer, who with his partner Ann McElhinney has produced films that include the pro-fracking documentary FrackNation, the anti-environmentalist screed Mine Your Own Business and Not Evil, Just Wrong, a rebuttal to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth that earned McAleer a moniker as “the climate denier’s Michael Moore.”
Yet when nine of the original 13 actors cast for Ferguson walked out of the show days before its opening over what they claimed was the play’s right-wing bias, their protest achieved something almost unheard of in L.A.’s stage community — it moved theater from the arts section to the front page.
It also meant that when director Nick DeGruccio’s production (for the Theatre Verité Collective) opened Sunday evening for its four-night run, most of the replacement cast was understandably still on book.
Nevertheless, it made for a riveting spectacle and comes as a reminder both of the adversarial dramatic power that is inherent in any courtroom testimony and how even the dry language of a legal transcript can come alive when placed in the hands of skilled actors. Add a standing-room-only audience and the high stakes of this country’s ongoing debate about race, police profiling and its use of lethal force, and you’ve got the ingredients for an incendiary evening of theater.
A Ferguson program note defines “verbatim theatre” as “a form of documentary theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people.” Which Ferguson certainly is — just not all the words. In the version published by The New York Times, the Ferguson grand jury transcript runs 4,799 pages, or roughly 150 hours worth of performing text. McAleer’s script times out at 95 minutes in select excerpts carefully pruned and intercut for dramatic — and persuasive — effect.
But does McAleer’s version of the grand jury represent “the truth about what happened to Michael Brown and Darren Wilson” as the writer also asserts in the program? The short answer turns out to be: It depends on what truth one is looking for.
Ferguson was originally billed as piece of interactive theater in which audience members would be polled after the performance to deliver their own verdict on whether Wilson should have been indicted. That vote was skipped at the Sunday opening.
This observer, who still carries stinging memories of the Daryl Gates-era LAPD, felt that in the conflicting “he said, she said” versions of the shooting that McAleer highlights between Darren Wilson (played by Nicholas A. Goldriech) and Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson (Charles McCoy), the Johnson testimony seemed a far more likely approximation of the truth — that Wilson showed extraordinary poor judgment, was aggressively abusive and unprofessional over a crime that amounted to shoplifting a handful of cigarillos, and should have been indicted.
Still, after the performance, audience member Brad Frantz, who said he came to the show because he believed that the narrative pushed by the media had been unfairly critical of Wilson, said that Ferguson confirmed his belief that the grand jury acted properly.
“Not only that,” Frantz added, “it probably shouldn’t have even gone there. Because it didn’t seem like there was any evidence really. That the evidence, both testimony and forensic — at least the legitimate testimony — seemed to support the officer’s version.”
David Atkinson, a Los Angeles actor who said he had formed no opinion about the shooting prior to seeing show but came because he was intrigued by the premise of verbatim theater and the idea of hearing the words that were actually spoken by the principals in the case, was more circumspect.
“What I don’t know even after this evening,” Atkinson noted, “is there were 5,000 pages, so what did the playwright include and what did he leave out? I don’t know him personally, so I couldn’t vouch for his credibility. But if he gave a fair accounting of what was in those 5,000 pages, if I were on that grand jury, I might not have indicted that cop either, because there seemed to be a lot of questions and witnesses that turned out to be unreliable.”
Another audience member, Michael Ramey, a screenwriter who grew up in the same North County section of St. Louis that includes Ferguson, says he came to see the show because a producer friend gave him tickets.
“I think that to save lives, you’ve got to think,” Ramey reflected. “And according to this play, there was enough time that I feel as though any good officer could have said, ‘I’m going to wait for backup. This guy’s six-foot-five.’ You know what I mean? … It’s like, let’s put the fire out before it begins.”
Perhaps the most thoughtful observation of the evening was made by one of the replacement actors at her car in the parking lot (she asked not to be named). “Of course the play is biased,” she said. “But to get to the truth of what happened that day in Ferguson would take something that goes far deeper than what was said at the grand jury. It would take a work of art."
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Ferguson plays through Wednesday at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. fergusontheplay.com.
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