Provocative. Intense. Powerful. These are all words I would use to describe Phelim McAleer’s new play Ferguson, which opened last week in New York. I’m sure that comes as no surprise though given that the focus of the production is the August 9, 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. It also probably comes as no surprise to hear that as an audience member, it was really difficult for me to separate my thoughts on the performance from my thoughts on the incident itself. But I think that was by design, and it is a big part of what makes the play—directed by Jerry Dixon—so compelling.
Most people are of course familiar with the story of Michael Brown’s shooting, and the controversy that surrounded it. Brown, an 18-year old recent high school graduate, got involved in an altercation with a police officer named Darren Wilson that ended with Wilson shooting him multiple times. Brown died on the scene, sparking outrage from many in the community and around the country over the too-often lethal use of force by police against unarmed black men. It intensified a few months later, when a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson after reviewing the evidence in the case.
This controversial grand jury proceeding is the specific focus of McAleer’s play. But it’s more than just a focus—the production is actually staged as a courtroom proceeding, with audience members serving as the jury responsible for deciding the case. Indeed, the lawyers spoke to us the same way they would have spoken to members of the real jury, and all of the dialogue was drawn word-for-word from the testimony on record. The intent of course is to make you feel like you are there in the courtroom, watching the events unfold just as they happened. And also to expose you to the rawest and purest version of the facts of the case—a version that isn’t being filtered through anyone else’s lens.
Not surprisingly, what appears when the information is presented this way is a picture that is more nuanced and complicated than it seems on its face.
And that is tough to process in the case of something so tragic.
This play has been controversial in other cities where it has run—Los Angeles in particular, where nine cast members walked out of a staged reading because they didn’t like the script. I won’t comment on that one way or another—obviously McAleer had to make some editorial choices to condense 25 days’ worth of testimony and evidence into 90 minutes. Instead, I’ll say that my biggest takeaway from the production is that there were so many points leading up to the shooting where little decisions could have—and should have—been made differently. And that a change in even one of those decisions would have—and should have—prevented the entire thing.
I’ll leave it at that, because I really think this a play worth seeing for yourself, and since you’re all potential future grand jury members I don’t want to influence your opinion one way or another.
While the story itself is reason enough to see this play, I also should mention the cast, which was fantastic as well. Cedric Benjamin, who plays Dorian Johnson, the teenager with Brown during the altercation with Wilson, was a standout to me, but a lot of the most intense moments stemmed from interactions between cast members.
Again, I strongly encourage people to go out and see Ferguson before it leaves New York. It’s a tough, sad play to watch, and it might make you uncomfortable. But it is also extremely relevant in this day and age and for that reason, it is important.
Ferguson is on a very limited run—ending November 5th—so I encourage you to get your tickets quickly. The show is playing at the 30th Street Theatre at 259 West 30th Street. For more information and tickets, go to Fergusontix.com.
By: Reagan Daly