TDR Reviews “Ferguson”

Artistic expression is often most meaningful when it is grounded in some reality—a variable degree of truth. This form of art is successful time and time again in fostering greater social consciousness and change. Films like Milk (2008) and Schindler’s List (1993) helped shape public perception about the LGBT rights movement and the Holocaust, respectively, largely because they took elements of truth and cast it in on-screen drama. But, if art based in truth can impact society so effectively, what of art that is the truth? That question is exactly the focus of Phelim McAleer’s stage production Ferguson. McAleer describes Ferguson—which relies entirely on actual grand jury testimony from the investigation into the 2014 Michael Brown killing—as “a dose of truth.”

The grand jury that decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson took twenty-five days to come to a decision, after hearing five-thousand pages of testimony from sixty different witnesses. In writing the script for Ferguson, McAleer poured over these testimonies, which were released to the public as soon as the grand jury made its decision. It is a feat in itself to be able to comb through five-thousand mostly mundane pages and come out with a 90-minute performance that draws from a range of those witnesses. The testimonies provided the lines, but McAleer had to fit those testimonies together into a coherent, fluid, and powerful performance. Writing a creative original script takes skill, but McAleer’s work required true talent. He constructs a script in which the lines were already written—or rather, spoken—by real people that still maintains the entertainment expected of a dramatic performance – a quality seldom found in an actual courtroom.

Given the method by which the script was written, the issue of bias must be addressed foremost. Obviously, there is inevitable bias in the process of choosing which witnesses and which sections of their testimonies to include. That bias could have crippled the performance, and yet it did not seem to pervert the overall impartiality of the abbreviated narratives—Ferguson was a fair, sober portrayal of the grand jury proceedings.

When Ferguson came to New York City, it was performed in Urban Stages theatre. The theatre was entirely transformed into a courthouse—from signs in the bathroom reading “report any activity threatening jurors” to Prosecutor Bob McCulloch addressing the audience as if they were grand jurors. These details may seem to be for the mere purpose of “setting the stage,” but there is more to it than that. While the performance itself is a grand jury proceeding, the theatre is a grand jury of sorts as well, deciding whether or not to indict the truth in order to maintain a narrative based on falsities. The audience hears the same evidence—albeit abbreviated—that the actual grand jurors heard, and the audience is compelled in the same way to make a judgment based on the facts that emerge from the muddled ambiguities, contradictions, and lies. How exactly can truth be extracted from such a mess? Ferguson will not answer that question. The purposeful lack of a conclusive judgment at the end of the performance allows for the audience to determine their own judgment, separate from the one that the actual grand jury came to.

After McCulloch’s opening, the play progresses through excerpts from various witnesses. Some of the witnesses were given fake names, as the publically released documents did not identify the names of most of the witnesses. The testimonies of Mark Williams and Dorian Johnson (friends of Michael Brown) provide the valuable background information about both Michael Brown and the events preceding the shooting. As the investigation develops, both of their testimonies change, are inconsistent, and contain clear falsehoods. Cedric Benjamin (Dorian Johnson) delivers the raw emotion—the anger, confusion, and utter anguish—of someone who just saw his best friend shot down. While the high-intensity scenes of the prosecutors hammering Dorian Johnson with questions until finally he snaps might be considered by many to be the height of Cedric Benjamin’s performance, I found his impression of Dorian Johnson’s paradoxically heartwarming and heart wrenching reflections on his quasi-mentorship of Michael Brown to be particularly moving. For most of the play, the passion was lacking on the part of Chaundre Hall-Broomfield (Mark Williams), but he redeemed his performance in a subtly tense moment between his character and an investigator. When Mark Williams gets up to leave during an interview, the white investigator puts his hand on Mark’s shoulder—an act of physical aggression that is not taken lightly. Chaundre Hall-Broomfield’s face is a window into the uniquely dangerous experience of the “gang-aged black male,” revealing the mutual hostility and distrust between Mark and the investigator.

The weakest performance comes from Kevin Sims in his role as a construction worker who met Michael Brown earlier in the day of the shooting. While I admire the attempt to realize the mundaneness, slow pace, and boredom of grand jury proceedings through this character, Kevin Sims just doesn’t quite deliver. His slow-talking, almost drunk sounding impression is sloppy and too deliberate. His character is supposed to be dramatically frustrating, but Kevin Sims’s performance is simply unsatisfying.

The stars of the show are undoubtedly Kim Brockington (Prosecutor Sheila Whirley), Lavonda Elam (Martha Jenkins), and Renika Williams (Ciara Jenkins).

Kim Brockington plays Sheila Whirley—the only person of color on the side of the prosecution. Kim Brockington’s performance is like a time-bomb—subtly developing Sheila Whirley’s discomfort with the proceedings until finally blowing up in an abruptly emotional outcry that captivates. While questioning a young black female witness, Prosecutor Sheila Whirley breaks down crying, yelling “Could you be mistaken?” The moment is shocking, upsetting, and moving.

Lavona Elam plays a few characters, but she stands out as Martha Jenkins, an eyewitness and the mother of another eyewitness, Ciara Jenkins. Lavona Elam makes Martha Jenkins seem detached, trustworthy, and traditional—Martha Jenkins isn’t a woman you want to cross. As she sits in front of the grand jury cooling herself with an elegant hand fan, she seems simultaneously passionate and dispassionate. While the words that the real witness said were objectively convincing, Lavona Elam takes those same words and develops a character that steals the show despite having a relatively minor role.

Renika Williams plays Ciara Jenkins, the daughter of Martha Jenkins and the last witness questioned in the play. Ciara’s testimony is the one that evokes a powerful response from Prosecutor Sheila Whirley, and Renika Williams’ performance evokes an almost as powerful response from the audience. Ciara is young, scared, and distrusting of authority. She didn’t want to testify, but her testimony made all the difference both in the actual grand jury decision and in Ferguson. Renika Williams and Kim Brockington have a chemistry unlike anything else seen in the rest of the stage play—there is a bond cast in their experiences as women of color. Their characters both desperately want to believe that Michael Brown didn’t do what they know he did—Ciara because of what she saw, and Sheila Whirley because of what she has heard during the proceeding. Ciara Jenkins is clearly intended to have the most impact on the audience, and Renika Williams’ energetic and engaging performance delivers remarkably on that intention.

Overall, Ferguson is a thought-provoking performance. This is a show that everyone ought to see, especially those with ironclad biases and beliefs about the Michael Brown shooting. Ferguson is one of many dramas that have popped up recently about Michael Brown, such as Antigone in Ferguson which was recently at the Hopkins Center. The crucial difference between Ferguson and other plays on the issue is the basis on witness testimonies. Recasting the publically accessible but terribly cumbersome witness testimonies through such an accessible medium allows for an unprecedentedly accurate portrayal of the tragedy. While uncomfortable, intense, and at times disturbing—Ferguson forces us to challenge and evaluate the narratives we chose to believe through actual evidence.