“Ferguson,” a play by Phelim McAleer, presents verbatim testimony from the Grand Jury that declined to indict white Police Officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown, an event in Ferguson, Missouri that led to demonstrations and debates nationwide.
Using 13 actors to portray 20 characters – prosecutors, eye witnesses, character witnesses, experts, grand jury members, and Wilson himself – the play boils down 25 days of testimony (a transcript of more than 4,000 pages ) to about 90 minutes. The result is a courtroom drama like none other, with many unanswered questions.
The acting, directing and design are all competent, although at climactic moments some of the actors theatrically emote in an unrealistic way given the formal, legal setting. Perhaps director Jerry Dixon is overcompensating for the dry format. While there are some inherently riveting moments, the general tone is like that of a real trial: It can feel at times like sitting through the tedious parts that “Law and Order” leaves out.
But it would be misleading to speak in isolation about “Ferguson” as if strictly a work of theater. McAleer’s play doesn’t just plug into the controversy surrounding the killing; it has generated its own controversy. Two years ago, during rehearsals for a staged reading of the play in Los Angeles, most of its 13 cast members quit, charging it was overly sympathetic toward the police officer. “We were all concerned,” departed cast member Donzaleigh Abernathy, the daughter of civil rights era leader Ralph Abernathy, told The Hollywood Reporter, “because the testimony made Michael Brown look like a villain and a big bully and some drugged-out kid who was a bad guy.”
Having now seen the New York production of the play, opening tonight Off-Off Broadway at the 30th Street Theater, I have some quibbles with the original cast members’ accusations – but also see them as raising (intentionally or not) a larger question about the play.
Yes, one can leave the theater thinking the play sympathetic to Wilson, as portrayed by apple-cheeked actor Ian Campbell Dunn, but that seems almost unavoidable given that Wilson volunteered to testify to the Grand Jury (which, as the play makes clear, he wasn’t legally required to do), and therefore is standing on stage in front of us. By contrast, nobody portrays Brown; he is mostly a shadowy figure on the surveillance videos in the store where he stole the cigarillos. Even so, the careful listener can catch comments that at least offer some subtle food for thought about the officer’s possible racial attitudes. A fellow officer testifies that Wilson asked him for pointers about the African-American community, since “I have not had much experience” with one. Later, when recounting the confrontation with Brown, Wilson says “he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Calling someone a demon says more about the perceiver than the perceived.
The playwright has rearranged his selections of the transcript artfully in what seems to be both an effort at some narrative coherence, and also to give at least the appearance of balance. So, the first two characters we see are, first, Michael Brown’s best friend saying good things about Michael (“That man had a heart of gold…you would all love him”) and then immediately afterwards Darren Wilson’s police supervisor saying good things about Darren (“Darren is a very easy going individual, always has a smile on his face….Darren is a good officer.”) If, as the critics accuse, the playwright is cherry-picking testimony to picture Brown as an unremitting bad guy, the effort is not clear enough to be completely persuasive. At one point, a toxicologist rattles off his extensive academic background, then testifies that Brown had “a very significant dose” of “THC” (which, we are not told, is the active ingredient in marijuana.) But then this long technical passage ends with the toxicologist saying: “I can’t tell you how he was impaired.” Perhaps the playwright is raising the possibility that drugs can explain Michael Brown’s behavior, but the evidence is inconclusive.
If for those of us who aren’t legal experts in the case, the jury is out over whether McAleer exhibits a distorting bias in his selection and shaping of the Grand Jury testimony, the accusations bring up a larger question: What is the purpose of “Ferguson”?
Is it to explain and explore what convinced the Grand Jurors not to indict? There are several problems with that. First, how can we know what specific moments in the 25 days of testimony were persuasive to the jurors, rather than to the playwright? (They have not publicly explained their thinking.) Second, as lawyers have pointed out (but it’s not mentioned in this play), nine out of 12 Grand Jurors needed to vote for an indictment. This means that eight of these 12 jurors could have voted to indict Darren Wilson. That seems unlikely, however, because of a third point: Although St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch is a character in “Ferguson,” we do not learn the sophisticated way he guided the jurors to their conclusion; in the words of one columnist, “his decision not to recommend a specific charge to the grand jury essentially guaranteed there would be no indictment.” (In an article in the Huffington Post shortly after the Grand Jury’s decision, law professor Nancy Leong provided clarity and context about this and other questions about the process, none of which the play explains, even in the playbill.)
Is the purpose of the play to re-litigate the case? If so, why rely just on the Grand Jury testimony. Four months later, in March, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice issued two reports based on their own investigations. One was specifically about the shooting of Michael Brown (PDF ) and concluded that Wilson should not be prosecuted for a federal crime: “The evidence, when viewed as a whole, does not support the conclusion that Wilson’s uses of deadly force were ‘objectively unreasonable’ under the Supreme Court’s definition.” The carefully worded Justice Department report uses the “physical and forensic evidence” to cast doubt on some eye witness accounts that Michael Brown had his hands in the air as if surrendering; rather, it finds more credible the testimony that Brown was approaching Wilson in a way to make Wilson feel threatened, perhaps charging at him.
A good chunk of “Ferguson” the play is taken up with prosecutors methodically demolishing the witnesses whose testimony offered some version of the hands in the air narrative.
The other Department of Justice report, however, was an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department (PDF) that “revealed a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law,” and concludes that “Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes.”
A play entitled “Ferguson” could have looked more broadly into the significance of the confrontation and reaction to it for what it says about America; it could have dug deeply into the principal figures involved to help us understand their character; it could have dramatized this real-life tragedy that people think they know using the tools of stagecraft to provide fresh insights and to inspire empathy.
But recent interviews suggest that McAleer, a journalist and filmmaker who has never written a play before, intends “Ferguson” not just to debunk popular assumptions about the Michael Brown killing but to discredit the entire movement that’s sprung up to protest police killings of black people:
“You ask 9 out of 10 people about the phrase, ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ they’ll say, ‘That was Ferguson, Michael Brown,wasn’t it?’ The NFL protests sprung out of the Michael Brown shooting. Black Lives Matter came out of Ferguson and the ‘innocent black men getting shot by police officers’ narrative started with Ferguson. That’s an agenda set on a completely false premise….There is no problem with police brutality in America.A tense, volatile situation getting out of hand is not police brutality….”
(Actually Black Lives Matter began in 2013, a year before the Ferguson shooting, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida.)
Given McAleer’s views, one can see why he would choose to focus exclusively and so legalistically on the Grand Jury testimony, while ignoring subsequent information, such as the various journalistic accounts, books, and the Department of Justice reports. (It’s an odd feature of “Ferguson” that all but five of the characters are given pseudonyms because their real names were redacted from the Grand Jury documents, even though some of their real names have been published subsequently.) Phelim McAleer’s political agenda doesn’t necessarily mean he’s deliberately slanted the Grand Jury testimony, but it forces the casual theatergoer to be a wary juror and political analyst.
30th Street Theater
Written by Phelim McAleer
Directed by Jerry Dixon
Scenic design by Jason Simms, costume design by Martin Lara Avila, lighting design by Charlotte Seelig, projection design by Caroline M. Trewet, sound designers/composers Jeremy Earhart and Trevor “TK” Kuprel
Cast: Cedric Benjamin, Kim Brockington, Paul DeBoy, Ian Campbell Dunn, Chaundre Hall-Broomfield, Sarah Nedwek, Geoffrey Dawe, LaVonda Elam, Jonathan Miles, Ben Prayz, Kevin Sims, Carol Todd, Renika Williams
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Ferguson is scheduled to run through November 5, 2017.