In The Theater District, Ferguson Misremembered

Renika Williams plays and eye withness with Ian Campbell Dunn as Darren Wilson. (COURTESY OF CLAY ANDERSON)

By MICHAEL APPLER
Staff Writer

When the dark of night comes and the people take to the streets, the blackness beneath the clouds saturates with certain and distinct bursts of color. And in the many days and months following the 9th of August, 2014, the darkness that engulfed the small city of Ferguson, Missouri would wax impenetrable. Only the vibrancy and violence of the night’s activity would counter what befell this 6.2 square mile suburb after the humid noon when Michael Brown fell and lay dead in the middle of Canefield Drive for four and a half hours.

The contrasts in color are what you remember, the night time cut only by the brilliant oranges and white-hot yellows glowing from cars and buildings set on fire in rage. The pinks and washed-out reds of flashing police sirens diffused by thick clouds of tear gas. The chalky, alabaster white of milk, splashed and dried on to the skin of black bodies burning with the sting of pepper spray. The deep blues, almost marine in their depth as if they were reaching into the bowels of the ocean, of helicopter spotlights scanning and searching through the nightfall, through the crowds of people who marched down the streets of Ferguson once the sun went down and carried amidst the darkness the solemn flames of vigil.

But in a small theater on W 30th Street in New York City, where the play, “Ferguson,” written by Phelim McAleer and directed by Jerry Dixon, has made its World Premiere, there is no such depth and contrast of color.

The stage is harshly lit, barren and cavernous. We are set in a Ferguson courtroom, gray and dully brown, where the unnatural yellow light radiating above the stage reaches into the audience and never quite allows for the theater to fall into complete darkness. The audience take their seats to a persistent droning of some distant rumble, of some far-off and muffled implosion, and on the back wall, painted grey like stone, a projection of smoke swirls and agitates the set, never settling and always in flux. But on this stage, in this production, the tumult that churned through the streets of Ferguson, that unsettled a nation and birthed a movement, is left altogether out of sight. In here, in this makeshift courtroom placed before an audience, the air is cold and stark and the unrest that once tore a city in two is nearly forgotten.

McAleer’s play is set to verbatim transcripts of the Grand Jury proceedings that followed the killing of Michael Brown. In reality, the Grand Jury famously delivered no indictment of officer Darren Wilson in November of 2014, three months after the shooting, igniting the second and greatest wave of protests in Ferguson against police brutality.

It is McAleer’s intention to turn his audiences into a Grand Jury, to present to them testimony delivered to the actual jurors three years earlier. “A lot of people lied about what they saw that day. They lied to support both sides. They lied to the media, they lied online, and they lied to investigators. Many admitted this to the Grand Jury, but the media never corrected the record,” reads the show’s description.

But when McAleer, a staunchly conservative Irish journalist and filmmaker, began rehearsals for the first production in Los Angeles two years ago, nine actors walked out on the read-through in protest of McAleer’s depiction of Michael Brown’s death, feeling that it had presented a grossly one-sided account of the shooting, prioritizing the voice of Darren Wilson.

As McAleer’s patrons wait for the house to open in the small lobby of the 30th Street Theater, its walls painted an odd mixture of blue and orange, they congregate before a theater door that bears a sizable Missouri state seal and two signs that read “This area for jurors only,” and “Grand Jury in session.” Like in the theater, the lobby drones with repeated sound; here, an incessant metal banging, as if someone were taking their fists to the side of a jail cell, irritates the audience as they await their seats.

When the show begins, the theater is addressed directly by county prosecutor Bobby McCulloch, played by actor Paul DeBoy, and told to take the following testimony sincerely and with reverence. “It’s very important you’ve all come to deliberate,” he instructs.

But what follows is devastating.

As the play progresses, prosecuting attorneys Sheila Whirley and Susan White, played by actors Kim Brockington and Sarah Nedwek, and FBI Agent Brad Taper, played by Kevin Sims, begin to unfold testimony before the Grand Jury.

Immediately there emerges a gross error. McAleer may be feeding us, the audience, the Grand Jury, verbatim words from Darren Wilson’s hearing, but they are curated, cherry-picked snippets of interrogation taken from nearly 6,000 pages of testimony, forensic reports and witness interviews conducted in front of a jury over the course of almost two months.

A common narrative emerges quickly in McAleer’s script. The reenacted testimonies focus largely on two points; going so far as to project archival video of the robbery along the back wall, the production harps on the theft of a small box of cigars committed by Michael Brown just before he was shot by Darren Wilson. While many legal experts have argued that the petty-crime is immaterial to the case because Officer Wilson intercepted Brown for an unrelated matter (Brown was walking in the middle of the street), the incident holds a central place in McAleer’s script. Secondly, it is among “Ferguson’s” chief goal to dispel the assumption that Michael Brown had in fact put his hands in the air moments before he was shot. At numerous times throughout the show, McAleer presents testimony that draws into question the witness observation that became a key symbol in the protests that followed Michael Brown’s death, as if to suggest that in proving Brown had not raised his arms, the popular narrative surrounding Ferguson might collapse altogether.

There are moments in the play where testimony is brought forward to demonstrate the flaws in many witness’ accounts. But when FBI Agent Brad Taper only lightly presses witness Susan White, played by Carol Todd, for using the word ‘nigger’ and having a racist agenda, something does not feel quite right; when later he turns to interrogate a black witness and screams in his face for providing contradictory testimony, cornering him, pushing him up against a wall and pounding on the table beside him, it is hard not to feel the pit of your stomach churn as if you were watching racism unfold on the stage in front of you.

It is hard not to feel that, as you watch the character of Darren Wilson, played by actor Ian Campbell Dunn, rush into the audience and wail as he recites a dramatized monologue of the fear he felt in his eyes, of the menacing and evil presence he felt before him when he pulled the trigger on Michael Brown, that something here has gone very wrong. And it is hard not to feel that, as he holds his two hands together in the formation of a gun like a mischievous toddler, pointing his fingers to the back of the audience while his hands shake, that you are being fed something that dramatizes beyond reality the simple and matter-of-fact killing of a high school boy, something that tastes of blood.

But perhaps the largest offense committed by “Ferguson” is that it just may miss the point, that it fails to realize that the least important thing in Ferguson, Missouri is Darren Wilson’s innocence. In a March 2015 Atlantic article, Ta-Nehisi Coates himself concedes the probable innocence of Officer Wilson. For Coates, what matters is not one man’s innocence, but the guilt of the police culture in Ferguson, of an institutionalized racism that ran through the veins of a police force not representative of the people they policed. What mattered and still matters is the militarization of police forces across the country and the activists who began a nationwide movement in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

Nevertheless, “We are in recess,” spoken to an audience still glowing in the bright, harsh light of the stage, ends the play and sends McAleer’s patrons off into the night to reevaluate the history they thought they already knew.

I feel sick, but the man sitting to my right, who before the show had been engaged in a conversation with the man by his side about how subway delays are caused not by construction, but by unreported and rampant subway crime, who had earlier tapped on my shoulder to ask me if I knew what a Grand Jury was, seems satisfied, and the woman sitting in the row below me, throwing on her pillowed jacket, exclaims to her partner that “that was fantastic!” and happily jumps from her seat to leave the theater and go about the rest of her night.

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