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Ferguson Review: Michael Brown’s Killing, Via Grand Jury Transcript

“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.

Ferguson

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

Tickets: $40

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Ferguson is scheduled to run through November 5, 2017.

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

10 Responses to Ferguson Review: Michael Brown’s Killing, Via Grand Jury Transcript

  1. Doc Tar says:

    I came here expecting a theater review, not a rehash of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” media driven propaganda narrative.

    Bravo! (said sarcastically with an added slow clap) for you, Mr. Mandell for a complete lack of objectivity and a reach to a Holder biased Justice Department report that never charged anyone with anything, to try to justify your obtuse counter argument.

    • New York Theater says:

      Have you actually read what I wrote? My only mention of the Hands Up etc narrative, as you put it, is to say that both the play and the Justice Department’s report cast doubt on it.

      I’m a theater critic; I’m not supposed to be objective. I was unaware of having a counterargument, much less an obtuse one.

      But saying that I have a “counterargument” implies that the playwright has an argument. So thank you for driving home my point that it would be misleading to treat “Ferguson” strictly as a work of theater. Your quite political comment helps to demonstrate that, and I applaud you for it, more rapidly than you’ve clapped for me.

      • Doc Tar says:

        You’re suppose to review the play not comment on the underlying politics. Was the story riveting? Was the acting any good? Was it well staged? Will the average theatergoer find it worth the price of a ticket and an evening?

        I saw very little of your subjective opinion on any of these important areas of the theater experience. What I read was an attempt to cast the verbatim reenactment of the grand jury testimony with doubt. I can understand you attending the performance with a preconceived notion that the Eric Holder era Justice Department has just as much weight as the evidence and testimony presented in St. Louis, but if the DOJ materials were not part of the original performance why did you devote a good portion of your review to it?

        In the future can I look forward to your addition of external material supporting the opposite side if you ever have the chance to review plays like “The Crucible” or “Inherit the Wind”?

      • New York Theater says:

        You raise some interesting issues. I respectfully disagree with you about what I’m “suppose” to do as a theater critic, but I do appreciate your airing of your views (I’m not being sarcastic); it’s provocative that you bring up “The Crucible” and “Inherit The Wind.” In fact, I have reviewed both plays, and I did explore the underlying politics. I even interviewed Arthur Miller in 2002 about this issue of how important it is to adhere to the facts — to be historically accurate.
        He responded in part:
        “I don’t think Shakespeare’s plays are historically accurate. That’s beside the point.”

        As I’m sure you know, Miller set out to write The Crucible because he saw a connection between the witch hunts in Salem and what has come to be called the Communist witch hunts in the 1950s, also known as the Red Scare. He relied on The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion Starkey, a history of the Salem witch trials, but also traveled to Salem to examine the original court records.

        “What their internal psychology was, was not on any record,” he said. “That is what I had to create. I suppose it is history, but it’s something more. It’s an imaginary reconstruction. It wouldn’t be a document you would turn to for absolute historical truth, if there is such a thing. If you are writing a work of literature, it’s literally impossible to avoid changing what people are like. The story takes over finally…The real question is whether a play casts any light on any human or social situation. If it’s simply an exploitation of a historic person, then it’s reprehensible.”

        Now, the situation is very different. The events around Ferguson are historical in one sense, in that they happened in the past, but it’s very recent history — recent enough so that there are some very strong political opinions about it, such as yours…and the playwright’s. I’m sorry you don’t see that I WAS commenting on THE PLAY by exploring the playwright’s motivation, and his decision on how to construct his play. and the material he chose to use and not to use.
        “Ferguson” is not a “verbatim reenactment” — it is a SELECTION and rearrangement of verbatim material to make (as you pointed out) an argument. Why am I not allowed as a theater critic to engage in what I see as the most important aspect of the show?

  2. New York Theater says:

    Oh, and I forgot to mention: I took a creationist to see “Inherit the Wind” and interviewed him about it afterwards. So I did one better than including opposing “material.” I included an opposing person.

  3. Pelopidas says:

    It seems your thesis is:this play claims to be a verbatim but IT IS NOT. I just reread your whole review as if it was a review of “The Crucible” and it would be a great essay on questioning sources, cherry picking testimony and exposing the playwrights’ bias and making it clear that this is NOT a verbatim presentation of the trail but it does not answer the question- should I see this play?

    Is not the purpose of a review to tell your audience, convoluted or in the most simple of terms: “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”? All I know from your review is the original cast bailed in LA because it is controversial but since when is being “controversial” enough information to know whether something is good or bad? Reading your review for a 2nd time I still don’t know: Which actors shined- if any? Did the play move the audience? Was the story captivating? How was the pacing & structure? One gets the feeling that it, from a political sense, rubs your fur the wrong way so all you can honestly say is “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”. Competent? Ok. But is Competent worth $40? All I know about this play from your review is that it purports to be verbatim but it really is not verbatim.

    Imagine if someone took 15 paragraphs to write a review of “Inglorious Bastards” to drive home the point that Hitler did not die in a movie theater in France. That would make for a painful read.

    • New York Theater says:

      I’m not Roger Ebert; I don’t see myself as a thumbs up or thumbs down kind of guy.
      If all you know about the play from my review is the issue of whether it’s verbatim or not, then I guess you skipped a few paragraphs of my review, such as:
      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.”)

      But assuming your goodwill, and that you aren’t simply answering the call to attack from a political website, I’ll answer your questions:

      Which actors shined- if any?
      The most memorable performance was by Ian Campbell Dunn, which is why I mentioned him. There were too many actors playing too many characters, each with too few lines, and the overall tone was of a legal procedural, to talk about actors shining. This is not a reflection on the talent of the actors.

      Did the play move the audience?
      I can’t speak for the entire audience. There were some moving moments; not enough of them. The tone was of a legal procedural.

      Was the story captivating?
      We know the real story captivated much of the nation — the version here, not as much so, for the reasons I laid out in the review: Its purpose was too narrowly focused on legalistic debunking rather than deep characterization or imaginative reconstruction or rich context.

      How was the pacing & structure?
      I talk at length about the structure in the review above. To repeat: The playwright artfully arranged the testimony to achieve a certain narrative coherence. The pacing was sometimes trying, like sitting through an actual trial.

      Maybe I’ll work some of this into the review itself (a benefit of blogging.)

  4. Doc Tar says:

    Thank you, for continuing the conversation Mr. Mandell, it’s been a learning experience for me.

    Given that we both seem to agree that FERSUSON is much closer to a re-enactment of the grand jury than say, a play written by Arthur Miller or Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (amazing, isn’t it, how the internet can make an amateur read like a pro online), what do you think was the purpose of creating the piece and bringing it to New York?

    To me it seemed like the creator (I hesitate to call McAleer’s a writer in this situation. He was more an editor, right?) wanted to bring the grand jury to an audience that only knew the Michael Brown shooting through the tainted filter of the main stream media. I believe the intention was to shock viewers into challenging the narrative they had been fed by their trusted new sources for months and to come to an understanding that perhaps the verdict wasn’t a miscarriage of justice, but instead a rational ruling by people doing their honest best to be fair.

    Now do you believe that providing additional material from the Eric Holder DOJ enhances the audiences experience of that shock or does it provide an out for individuals who still want to dismiss the final verdict as a travesty and as a demonstration of how justice is done in flyover country? To me it seems like you’ve done the equivalent of “tainting the jury pool” and ruined part of the experience for those who have read your column before attending the theater.

    Perhaps it would be more respectful of your readers to allow them their own subjective experience of the play. Perhaps the shock would encourage them to seek out answer for themselves, rather than grasping for an excuse to dismiss the proceedings as a miscarriage of justice that only served to cover up the underlying racial problems in this particular community. Can the proceedings of the Michael Brown grand jury be allowed to stand on its own or not? And if not, can the audience be allowed to come to their own exploration of the underlying issues if they are inspired by the production to seek them out?

    • New York Theater says:

      I have to leave to see a play, so no time for much of a response right now, other than that I’ve appreciated the exchange, and that I believe I’ve already in effect given my views vis a vis your latest comments. I am curious though: Have you seen the play?

  5. Maya Chung says:

    Hello, I’m a student at Columbia Journalism School writing about this play. Would love to hear some more of your thoughts. Please send me an email if you are available to talk. Thanks!

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