Veteran actor Philip Casnoff hadn’t read the full script yet when he arrived for the first rehearsal of “Ferguson,” a play chronicling the shooting of Michael Brown by a Missouri police officer.
Casnoff thought he knew what the play, set for a four-day staged reading starting Sunday at the Odyssey Theater, would be about: the wilderness of testimony the grand jury navigated while investigating the day Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the unarmed 18-year-old. Casnoff presumed a variety of viewpoints, the fog of truth.
Then he read the script, which tells the story that Brown didn’t have his hands up and that he charged at Wilson.
Now, in a case of art imitating life, the play is experiencing the kind of ill will and mistrust that erupted from the city it attempts to portray. Part of the 13-member cast is in revolt — Casnoff and four others have quit — as the playwright and actors are locked in a fundamental disagreement over how to tell the story of Brown’s death.
Though the grand jury declined to indict Wilson after some witnesses and physical evidence supported his account of events, the tone of the play shocked some actors.
“It felt like the purpose of the piece was to show, ‘Of course he was not indicted — here’s why,’” Casnoff said. He said that after he learned who the play’s author was, Casnoff, who describes himself as “very liberal, left-wing-leaning,” thought, “Whoa, this is not the place for me to be.”
Through testimony taken from grand jury transcripts, the play ends with a witness telling a prosecutor that Wilson was justified in killing Brown. The audience is then supposed to vote on whether Wilson should have been indicted.
The cast members who quit questioned the motivations of the playwright, Phelim McAleer.
McAleer, a conservative filmmaker and journalist from Ireland now living in Marina del Rey, said he’s just interested in the truth.
“The truth is the truth. If it doesn’t fit in with their beliefs, they need to change their beliefs,” said McAleer, who declined to say whether Wilson should have been indicted but said his research shows the hands-up claim is bogus. “All the people who testified that he had his hands up, it was pretty much demolished in grand jury testimony.”
If the rest of the decidedly more liberal cast resigns — some actors are leaning that way — McAleer said he’ll find a new cast. He also hopes to put the show on YouTube and bring the production to Ferguson itself.
“There’s got to be some actors in L.A. who aren’t scared of controversy,” he said.
McAleer has made documentaries that have challenged the anti-fracking documentary “Gasland” and Al Gore’s climate-change indictment “An Inconvenient Truth.” He missed the Saturday rehearsal because he was attending a conservative political leadership conference in Pennsylvania.
Theater has a history of using real-life accounts to explore social fracture, including treasured works such as “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” Anna Deavere Smith’s retelling of the L.A. riots through the voices of dozens of residents and officials.
During the “Ferguson” rehearsal, the performers balked after realizing the only witness in McAleer’s play who says Brown had his hands up is immediately discredited by an FBI agent.
(Although some witnesses told investigators that Brown had his hands up, a Department of Justice report said many of those witnesses’ accounts were recanted, debunked or inconsistent with physical evidence.)
McAleer’s play also ends with a damning exchange between a witness and prosecutor.
“Do you feel like this could have ended up any other way?” the prosecutor asks.
“Yeah, it could have, if Michael Brown had just stopped running” toward Wilson, says the witness, who is identified as Witness 48 in the grand jury transcripts, but who is given a pseudonym in the play and cast with a young black actress. “It could have ended another way. The officer had no other choice.”
No other choice, in other words, but to shoot Brown.
After those lines were read by actors Deborah Puette and Sydney A. Mason, a kind of awkward quiet fell over the cast members, whose bodies had been bent like question marks as they stared down at their scripts in a rehearsal space near Culver City.
The cast questioned the balance of the 55-page script, and even debated the justification for the shooting.
“Why not shoot him in the leg?” asked one actress, Donzaleigh Abernathy, cast to play a witness, her voice booming through the small, windowless space.
“He didn’t have time!” responded a younger actor, also playing a witness.
Several members requested changes to the script that would include adding another account more sympathetic to Brown to balance out the final witness’ dramatic testimony. McAleer has rejected those requests, spurring some of the actors’ departures.
“He claims that he wrote this to try to get to the truth of it, but everybody’s truth is totally subjective,” said Veralyn Jones, an African American cast member who resigned. “When you come to the matter of what really happened, nobody really knows for sure, because everybody has a different take on it. … It just didn’t feel right to me.”
One of the script’s most heated critics has been Abernathy, who is the daughter of civil rights movement leader Ralph David Abernathy, who was with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he died. Abernathy, who is black, has not decided to leave the cast yet — at least not before she has the chance to meet McAleer at a cast meeting scheduled for Thursday night.
“I want to hear what he has to say face to face. I actually want to know, on a moral level, how can you do something like this that you know will divide America?” Abernathy asked. “Does it make you feel good? Obviously he has a personal agenda. What is his personal agenda?”
McAleer was unapologetic, and waved away criticism.
“These are people who claim to love diversity, and they don’t love diversity — they just want people to agree with them,” he said.
So with or without his cast, McAleer said, the show will go on.