Controversial ‘Ferguson’ play survives premiere with a brand-new cast
By the time the actors hit the stage, the drama had already happened.
The premiere of “Ferguson,” a new play based on grand jury testimony about the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Missouri, went unexpectedly smooth Sunday in Los Angeles after a cast walkout threatened to hobble the controversial production.
There were no demonstrators outside the packed Odyssey Theatre, which had received complaints for renting out the stage to the play’s author, a rabble-rousing conservative journalist. The story, which is drawn solely from grand jury testimony, says Brown did not have his hands up and that the unarmed 18-year-old charged at Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson.
There were no demonstrations on stage either. In the week before opening, nine actors left the production over concerns that journalist and documentarian Phelim McAleer’s script painted a one-sided picture of what happened when Wilson shot the unarmed 18-year-old Brown on Aug. 9.
Nor did McAleer, of Marina del Rey, have to read the script on stage by himself, in his Irish brogue, as he had threatened to do following the mass walkout.
Instead, a half-black and half-white cast of 12 actors, some cast as late as Friday, read from McAleer’s script as written as an audience including 11 journalists quietly filled the theater’s 99 seats.”
“I have a son, and so you know, there [are] certain things that you do and don’t do when you are approached by authority,” recited an actress, playing a black witness to Brown’s shooting, as a siren from a police car passed outside the theater as if it were a sound effect. “And [Brown] just, he just should have stopped. He just should have stopped.”
The show ended with the testimony performed by a young black actress, who said Wilson’s shooting of Brown was justified. When the show ended, the audience gave a lengthy applause.
McAleer’s play garnered attention last week after The Times attended the play’s first rehearsal and reported that several actors were caught off-guard by McAleer’s motivations to present the testimony he believed accurately reflects what really happened in the St. Louis suburb last summer.
If the suddenly straightened backs and swiveling heads of the audience members Sunday night were any indication, the heart of McAleer’s play may be the few passages of testimony when witnesses and prosecutors go back-and-forth over whether Brown had his hands up when Wilson shot him.
The Department of Justice has said that even though several witnesses told investigators Brown had his hands up, their accounts were largely not credible or did not line up with physical evidence.
McAleer’s play only presents one of those witnesses, whose account is immediately discredited by an FBI agent. That puzzled some original cast members who wondered whether the months-long grand jury investigation — which ended last November when the jury declined to charge Wilson — contained too much minutiae to pack into a 55-page play.
Among the cast defections were the original actor cast to play Wilson, Dylan John Seaton, who called McAleer’s script “simplistic and misguided.” The actor playing St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, Philip Casnoff, was also put off by McAleer’s previous documentary projects, which have attacked critics of fracking and climate change.
“It felt like the purpose of the piece was to show, ‘Of course he was not indicted — here’s why,’” Casnoff previously told The Times. Casnoff described himself as “very liberal, left wing-leaning,” and after he found out who McAleer was, he said he realized, “Whoa, this is not the place for me to be.”
Both men were replaced by the first staged reading Sunday, which was set to run for four days. McAleer also scrapped a plan to have the audience vote on whether Wilson should be indicted, perhaps his only concession to the cast’s requests last week for script changes.
Replacement actor Nicholas A. Goldreich gave a bashful interpretation of Wilson’s grand jury testimony, sometimes pausing and stammering over his descriptions of how the officer told the grand jury he shot Brown, as if it were a painful secret Wilson were revealing for the first time.
“I’m an actor,” Goldreich told The Times after the show as the cast milled around in the Odyssey’s lobby. “I really enjoy the role — very juicy, very interesting. Without any political agenda, it’s an interesting historical piece in a modern time. ... I didn’t have much time to think about it because I got a call Friday, went to rehearsal Saturday and went on today.”
“You were fantastic!” a fedora-wearing McAleer told Goldreich. “You stole the show.”
An audience member came over to the two men and shook Goldreich’s hand, telling the actor: “Just powerful. When I believe that person is the real person, then I know they’ve done a great job.”
The cast controversy was a fundraising boon for McAleer, who is backing the play through an online crowdfunding site. He issued a public request for more donations after claiming that the actors’ requests to change the script were tantamount to censorship.
After news broke of the actor walkouts, an anonymous donor gave McAleer’s project $25,000, and as of Monday morning, the writer had raised a total of $97,312 for the project. McAleer says he wants to take the production to New York City and to Ferguson itself.
“It’s still shocking to me, the testimony. It’s still gobsmacking and so emotional,” McAleer told The Times after the show. “It’s nothing to be scared of. That’s the truth. That’s what happened.”
Reaction to the play and its surrounding controversy, McAleer said, was “overwhelmingly positive. Especially from the actors. Actually, they loved it.”
Actually, at least one actress didn’t love it.
“I don’t like his politics at all,” Diane Sellers, a black actor, told The Times in the lobby as McAleer chatted nearby with supporters. “I don’t agree with a lot of his projects. I feel like he’s looking at that in a one-sided way, and I don’t think he realizes it was one-sided. He feels like this justifies his opinion, and I don’t.”
Sellers decided to join the cast as a replacement after reading The Times’ story about the actor walkouts. She read, with interest, the complaints of former cast member Donzaleigh Abernathy, the daughter of civil rights movement leader Ralph David Abernathy, who was with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he died.
Sellers respected Abernathy’s concerns about the shooting and about McAleer’s politics but decided she could not form a firm opinion about the project — and about the grand jury investigation — without participating.
“I wanted to know firsthand what was heard in that grand jury testimony. I wanted that script. It was very valuable to me,” Sellers said.
And what Sellers saw in McAleer’s script, and the conclusion she reached from it, was perhaps the opposite of what McAleer was going for.
“There was no case [made] in support of Michael Brown,” Sellers said. “I feel like the process was flawed.”
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