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In 'Watching O.J.,' verdict day still resonates onstage

In 'Watching O.J.,' verdict day still resonates onstage
Lisa Renee Pitts, left, Angela Bullock and Tony Pasqualini in "Watching O.J." at Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles. (Hope Burleigh)
“Tomorrow you can be white again, Harold,” one of the central characters is told in “Watching O.J.,” the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles' account of the day the O.J. Simpson verdict came down. The production has some new-play issues, but as that provocative line indicates, the pertinence of "Watching O.J." is undeniable.
Playwright David McMillan sets his tale on Oct. 3, 1995, in Los Angeles, where diverse locals await the jury’s return.
Dry-cleaner proprietor Harold Levine (an assured Tony Pasqualini) just knows O.J. did it. Cordia (expert Angela Bullock, who recalls the late, great Lynne Thigpen), his longtime African American employee, basically agrees while trying to weigh reasonable doubt.
Black garage owner Oz (vivid, funny Robert Gossett) also thinks the defendant guilty, albeit from an entirely different position.  Meanwhile, Jamal (fine-tuned Kareem Ferguson), Cordia’s son and Oz’s mechanic, plans to attend the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
Adding to the mix are white Brentwood med student Allison (Tarah Pollock), Kareem’s former girlfriend; diehard Simpson supporter Kim (the fierce Lisa Renee Pitts), Cordia’s hairdresser crony; Allison’s current squeeze, Derek (Roy Vongtama), the son of Korean shop owners in South L.A.; and Sheila (Kelly Wolf), an LAPD officer’s wife.
McMillan writes believable human beings, their specific viewpoints shaded by gradually revealed traumas. That’s the best aspect, with 11th-hour customer Mrs. Osborne (Kate Prendergast, in for Eve Sigall at the reviewed performance) flipping the perspective yet again.
More problematic is the overload of themes and references, particularly in Act 1, and certain subplots that are more than conveniently calibrated. This challenges director Keith Szarabajka’s ability to keep pace up and polemic down, though the post-verdict Act 2 face-offs are galvanic and the final scene starkly haunting.
That said, with excellent acting across the board and irrefutable topicality, “Watching O.J.” is, though still refining, largely respectable. It certainly merits attendance in the current climate.
“Watching O.J.,” Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 8. $19.95. (818) 858-0440 or watchingoj.brownpapertickets.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
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