Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Theater of Justice

Ferguson Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch

Everything is theater, right?

In his book The Necessity of Theater; The Art of Watching and Being Watched, philosopher Paul Woodruff attempts a definition of theater. He arrives at the following:

“Theatre is the art by which human beings make human action worth watching, in a measured time and space.”

Woodruff tests his definition over the course of his volume and he examines this art from the perspective of practitioners and audience.

A lot of words have been written about the evening of November 24th and the press conference held by Ferguson prosecutor Robert McCulloch. While the decision of the grand jury regarding the possible indictment of Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the matter of the shooting of Michael Brown was known to prosecutors earlier in the day, the announcement was scheduled for 8:00PM Central Time.

Apparently, not a lot of notice was given to community members about the release of the information.

Even as it was happening, most of America must have had an uneasy feeling while watching the split screen of McCulloch and the large gathering protesters who were listening as he spent over ten minutes prefacing the decision of the grand jury not to indict Officer Wilson.

Watching it unfold, it would be hard to imagine a soul who was not thinking: “Maybe this was a bad idea to announce this at night?”  This particular sentiment was summed up succinctly in this tweet:

The official word on the decision from the prosecutor’s office was given as follows:
“We coordinated with law enforcement, gave schools time to get all children home and in a safe location, gave businesses time to make a decision regarding their employees' safety, prepared our statement and then made the announcement. We also had to give media time to set up.”
Of course, that last sentence would have been good satire years ago, but today we don’t bat an eye.

The content of the announcement itself has been the subject of speculation by legal analysts, many of whom suggest that McCulloch’s lengthy preamble to the actual release of the grand jury decision was an effort to distance himself from the grand jury process.

In effect, McColluch was casting himself as the simple messenger, sent from the mountain with the envelope containing the answers - loyal to this sacred system, yet, not any more involved in it than anybody else watching CNN.

Indeed, the press conference merely underlined the approach the prosecutor took towards the entire Grand Jury investigation: A posture of neutrality and then a presentation of all the evidence they had mined.  As as an offering to the people, all the evidence would be laid at the feet of any who wished to see it. You see, we are no different than he is.

Some legal reporters, such as Jeffrey Toobin, suggest this approach in itself was a case of a prosecutor putting his thumb on the scale:

“McCulloch gave Wilson’s case special treatment. He turned it over to the grand jury, a rarity itself, and then used the investigation as a document dump, an approach that is virtually without precedent in the law of Missouri or anywhere else. Buried underneath every scrap of evidence McCulloch could find, the grand jury threw up its hands and said that a crime could not be proved. This is the opposite of the customary ham-sandwich approach, in which the jurors are explicitly steered to the prosecutor’s preferred conclusion.”
McCulloch's goal, according to Toobin and some other analysts, was to create the illusion that a trial had been held.

McCulloch’s opening statements at the conference also contain some subplots or “B-stories”. The media bristled for days at McCulloch’s complaint that, “the most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the nonstop rumors on social media.”

It was easy to see the setup. The news crews were already positioned all around Ferguson, solemnly, but anxiously, awaiting the “verdict,” along with the fairly predictable fallout. As the cameras in courthouse rolled on the lone figure of McCulloch at the podium, the cameras on the street sent us live video of the impending heartache or jubilation of the crowd.

Everybody, watchers and players, seemed to be involved in this. McCulloch got his moment in the prime time spotlight and the opportunity to craft a narrative, one in which he is cast as the dutiful public servant.  This is, at the least, disingenuous. He is, after all, an elected official, who has run successful election campaigns again and again.

The players are one thing, but I think about the audience to which McCulloch had to imagine he was playing. He was thinking, probably, as most political-minded folks do, of the audience pact that theatergoers have with the performance: deeply engaged, but not actually participating; caring, but not getting too emotional; thinking, but not drifting away in your thoughts; identifying, but avoiding transference.

But this isn’t theater and it isn’t politics. This is justice.

The justice system is ceremonial in some respects and so it can easily be considered a theater of its own. However, the boundaries of performance won’t hold in the theater of justice without arms.

Things got dangerous, very fast. And reporters suddenly were looking a little worried here and there, and even gave away the facade - indicating that they had security details with them.

Even Judge Judy has a bailiff.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Drawing Room Comedy As Fabulous Invalid

The cast of Peter Snoad's Identity Crisis. 

At Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, a quiet riot is taking place. Peter Snoad’s play Identity Crisis, directed by Jackie Davis, has a diverse audience sending laughter up into the high ceiling of the Hall’s third floor playing space.

Hopefully the play won’t fly under the radar of the Boston theater scene, or the eyes and ears of those who write about it, but that is entirely possible. The playwright doesn’t come with a New York pedigree, the playing space isn’t in a trendy area, and the play itself is that kind of comedy that goes in and out of fashion with theater folk and critics alike.

Identity Crisis is a drawing room comedy or, more appropriately a living room comedy. Who really hangs out in drawing rooms these days? Like many classic comedies and farces it involves a marriage, social conventions, class, a little sex and, oh, Race.  The premise is simple and seems like it escaped from the mind of the love child of Alan Ayckbourn and Lydia Diamond.

A layabout neo-hippie, pot grower named Alan is finally getting his act together. He is about to wed into a wealthy, conservative Jewish family. On the eve of the ceremony, the rest of the family takes off to the rehearsal dinner while Alan waits behind for his Best Man - an old college friend from his frat boy days whom he hasn’t seen in person for a little while. When the friend arrives, he is Black. Not in black makeup, he is… a Black man.

His friend explains that he has turned Black, and it is slowly happening to more people around the country, (”It’s accelerated since Obama was elected.”) He has reason to believe it is going to happen to Alan as well. The process can take months or it can happen in just a couple of hours. Alan could wake up Black on his wedding day. He might even start turning Black as he walks down the aisle in front of his conservative in-laws!

The machinations used by the characters to deal with this situation are the maneuvers we know from classic farce and, of course, sitcoms. But what makes watching these tropes and conventions so pleasant is that the characters and the premise allow the playwright to bounce around a multitude of ideas and themes about our “post racial society.” There are some wicked laughs and some groaners, but it is all played lightly, - it doesn’t have the underlying sadness that, say, Ayckbourn brings to his comedies. That isn’t a criticism, it’s more like a distinction.

My thought though, as I watched this living room play, is that this particular type of comedy is perennial because the content can change easily with the times, a fact often left out by critics who occasionally proclaim the form inert or dead.

But it is always alive, because we are part of it. Audiences have watched Earnest and Algernon finagle their way around social conventions in their drawing room, just as they watched Orgon's family try to take off his religious blinders, and watched Felix and Oscar struggle as newly single men in a divorced world.

I know, I know, it’s a little way down from Wilde to Simon, but I’m still always amazed at how potently the theater can animate our societal foibles with this genre. In many cases, these living room comedies do a far better job than more stylized and experimental efforts which are celebrated, sometimes deservedly, (sometimes not) for their ambition, regardless of the coherence or thoroughness of their ideas.

Currently on the boards in Boston, there’s another play about an identity crisis from the same genre. Bad Jews at Speakeasy Stage is getting critical praise and entertaining audiences.

So, the living room comedy is dead, long live the living room comedy!

Identity Crisis is at Hibernian Hall until December 7th
Bad Jews is at Speakeasy Stage until November 29th