The rehearsal had yet to begin, and already it was jarringly clear that "For All Time," Cornerstone Theater Company’s wide-ranging exploration of the criminal justice system, takes place in another world from the televised realm of "Law & Order," where bloodshed and bereavement can be softened and held at arm's length with a simple disclaimer: "The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event."
Laurie Woolery, the play's director, wanted the session to begin on an encouraging note for the eight actors seated against a brick-faced wall of the warehouse-like rehearsal space of the Cornerstone building in downtown Los Angeles. So she praised the run-through they'd done two nights before.
Then she softly said, "I have some sad news. A friend of M.C.'s was killed, last night or this morning. Somebody very close to him. He said 'murdered.' He won't be here, obviously. We'll keep him in our thoughts."
The play is meant to hit close to home. It consists largely of shards and layers of life gathered from more than 100 interviews with offenders and victims, inmates and guards, prosecutors and public defenders, parents of children who are serving life sentences for small "third strike" infractions and parents sentenced to a lifetime of missing a murdered child. The actors didn't need the killing of Marcenus "M.C." Earl's friend to remind them that the scenes they're enacting are meant to hold a mirror to an unrelenting reality. But there it was anyway.
"It's real unfortunate it happened," Earl, 38, said two weeks later before a final dress rehearsal. "The fact of the matter is, I've been seeing stuff like that practically all my life, growing up in Watts." He plays three parts in "For All Time" -- a prosecutor, an ex-con (which he is, having served 4 1/2 years in prison for a 1995 bank robbery), and a man fighting to make California's "three strikes" law less draconian for nonviolent felons.
Another actor will play a character inspired by Earl's story: Having just earned a college degree in acting, he tried robbing a bank to underwrite his expenses while he auditioned for parts. Now he has been in several Cornerstone productions, and his ambition is to follow in the footsteps of his late father, Paris Earl, who was known for leading a children's theater and other artistic programs in Watts.
Cornerstone's method calls for picking a large subject of fundamental social importance ("For All Time" is the third of five plays in a 2 1/2 -year "Justice Cycle"), then basing each show on interviews with people whose lives have been caught up in it. Playwrights fashion their scripts out of what the interviewers bring back. Some of the community folks who tell their stories also become actors, performing alongside Cornerstone ensemble members and other professionals. More than half of the 21 players in "For All Time" are amateurs, Woolery said, and nine cast members have done time behind bars.
"For All Time" has taken a year to germinate under playwright KJ Sanchez, who has a long track record of writing or directing documentary plays, and Woolery, Cornerstone's associate artistic director, who plunged in despite a residue of fear of the subject because she'd been robbed in her home at gunpoint 15 years earlier.
Raised in New Mexico, Sanchez received her theater training at UC San Diego, learned experimental stage techniques as a member of the influential SITI Company and has crisscrossed the U.S. as an actor, teacher and director. She's now associate artistic director of the Two River Theater Co. in Red Bank, N.J., and a member of the New York documentary theater troupe the Civilians.
Another qualification Sanchez brought was an obsessive interest in Western civilization's original justice cycle, "The Oresteia." In Aeschylus' 2,500-year-old trilogy, blood vengeance gives way to trial by jury. The concept of justice, at first defined only by punishment and retribution, expands to embrace repentance, forgiveness and redemption.
By mid-September, when rehearsals began, Sanchez had spun out a script that retold "The Oresteia" while incorporating details from Cornerstone's interviews with Californians. But after hearing the cast read the script, then talk about the play in light of their own ideas and experiences, she tore up the play she'd written and wrote a new one in three hectic days. The title, "For All Time," was inspired by a public defender's comment about a man he was trying to save from a death sentence: "Nothing in my life defines me as he is forever defined by those three minutes of chaos."
That first reading convinced Sanchez that the contemporary stories were the story and that the ancient echoes should reinforce them, rather than vice versa. The play's main narrative arcs concern a support group for mothers of murdered children and the parole hearing of a killer for hire who has reformed to a point where even prison guards are vouching for him. Emotion-laden choruses from "The Oresteia" comment on the action; so does a litany from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which Sanchez spliced in at the suggestion of cast members.
Activists for victims' and prisoners' rights appear, and inmates, ex-convicts and a public defender are woven into the show. But there are no comparable portrayals of prosecutors or prison guards. Sanchez and Woolery say not many wanted to be interviewed, and those who did gave answers too guarded and mechanical.
This production about society's machinery for enforcing morality doesn't aim to enforce a moral. "After all the months working on the play, what I come back to is that it's complicated," Woolery says. "You feel how complicated [criminal justice] really is" and how polarized views of justice can be. For audiences, she adds, "my hope is a little bit of a window can be opened, so you can just for a moment slide into the humanity of the opposing side and see it from their point of view."
"There's not a resolution," Sanchez agrees, but she's hoping that "a little part of these lives will live with our audience, maybe for half an hour, maybe for a week, maybe for a good long while. And it might invite us to think twice when we want to quickly judge someone."