Audience becomes jury in racially-charged court drama

Show plays in churches, schools, synagogues

October 13, 2011

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(Photo by David Pierini)
Actress Stacey Doublin plays a woman suing over lost business.

An Evanston playwright hopes to make his audience members examine their own religious and racial divisions. He’s written a play called Defamation. It’s about a civil lawsuit so, on its face, it would seem to be common theater fare; however, the twist with Defamation is that the audience acts as the jury. And, Defamation is playing in unusual venues such as schools, churches and synagogues.

Evanston playwright Todd Logan is intrigued by a big question: If people of different races and religions go to bed in different places each night, what does that say about us?

He got the idea to explore this question after he had with his niece. At the time, he was living in Winnetka, and his niece was 12. She told him:

"You know, we hate people from Winnetka."

"And I said, 'Really, why is that?' and she said, 'Well, You don’t have any black people, and everybody's rich.' And I said to her, 'Well, if you hate people from Winnetka and I live here,  that means you also hate your uncle.' It reinforced the notion stereotypes are dangerous."

Logan calls himself a progressive advocate for civil rights, but an incident challenged that vision. Following a play reading, he'd gone out for drinks. He says he asked himself, "When was the last time I’d been in a social situation with three African-Americans?"

He was surprised to realize it was several years before. So, he did some soul searching.

"How did it come to pass that I’m now back in Winnetka, living in an all-white community? I belong to a tennis club that was almost all-Jewish, and all of my friends were also all-white?  I had to admit I have a choice of where I want to live," says Logan, who grew up in Highland Park, moved to Boston, then returned to the area to live in Winnetka. He now makes his home in Evanston.

Logan decided to explore these racial and ethnic divides by writing Defamation. He figures if people become aware of their preconceived notions, they’ll empathize with others more often.

That’s why he turned this courtroom drama’s audience into a jury. "The audience is part of the performance," he says.

He says one of his actors described Defamation like this: "It’s a play about the audience, and they don’t know it’s about them."

At the play's center, an accusation 

In Defamation Judge Adrian Barnes (portrayed by actor Malcolm Rothman), starts things off by announcing, "A few things you need to know: I’m ornery. For you, that means I don’t want to hear a peep."

At a performance of Defamation at the Evanston Public Library, the audience stirs a bit. They’re here to see a play, but when the judge announces "We're back from recess" the library takes on the character of a courtroom.

Actor Brian Rooney, who plays the attorney for the plaintiff, Regina Wade, stands up. Wade’s an African-American woman from Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side.

Wade is suing a Jewish man from Winnetka, named Arthur Golden. Wade (portrayed by Stacey Doublin) says Golden falsely accused her of stealing his watch, and that hurt her business.

Lawton asks, "What did you think when Mr. Golden asked you to check your shoulder bag?""

"It stopped me in my tracks," Wade says. "It’s one thing to ask me if I might have seen him pick it up or put it somewhere, but to ask me if I might have it? I thought oh, man, here we go."

Her attorney asks what she means.

"I’m black," Wade says. "When something’s missing, we’re always the suspect."

Then Golden and his attorney are up.

Actress Dorcas Sowunmi, as attorney Allen, asks, "Isn’t it possible you trusted her a little less because her skin is black?"

"No," says Arthur Golden, played by actor Richard Shavzin.

Allen says, "I look at where you live today and grew up in Winnetka on the North Shore: pretty town, pretty community, pretty pricey, pretty exclusive, and pretty white, correction, just about all white … "

"I am not going to sit here and be disingenuous and pretend the North Shore is an integrated community," Golden says. "But, I will not allow Miss Wade to paint me as a racist. Yes, I grew up in Winnetka. Yes, I have lived there most of my adult life, but that doesn’t mean you can say you know who someone is because you know where they go to bed at night."

The judge returns and tells the audience they have work to do.

"I’m not going to adjudicate the matter of Wade V. Golden," the judge says. "You are…You want to leave, you can’t. Why not?  You’ve got an obligation to fulfill."

The jury begins its deliberations, and members stand to make their case.

"If she lost the business because he told and implied that she had taken the watch and that was the only thing without any proof, yes, she should receive the defamation (award)," says one audience member.

"You feel that’s justified?" asks the judge.

"Yes, absolutely," the audience member says.

"OK," says the judge.

"The fact the watch is gone indicates someone has taken it," says another audience member. The crowd protests audibly. There are rising boos and hisses. "He's a creature of habit," the man continues.

The judge quiets the crowd. "ORDER."

The discussion continues. Eventually, the judge ends deliberations, and calls for a verdict.

"All those who find for the defendant, please stand."

The final tally? In the performance at the Evanston Public Library, all but three people vote for the African-American plaintiff, Regina Wade.

Keeping the conversation going

Playwright Todd Logan says this is almost always the case. He says, so far, only one audience has decided for the other character – Arthur Golden. That was at a well-off and mostly white high school in Northbrook. At another show, some people said they didn’t like that the Golden character is from Winnetka. They said if he were from Morton Grove, they would have taken his side.

"I was surprised because you think people are going to vote on the evidence, and not necessarily on the town where someone lives," Logan said. The playwright wants the discussion to go deeper than the facts of the case in his play. So after the shows, he and the actors invite the audience to linger and discuss race, religion and how they divide us.

One woman says she was affected by one detail in the play: People at Arthur Golden’s country club are white, but the people that serve them are not.

"And to me that’s just so all too real in society, you know. You try to work yourself up, but then sometimes because of people who have been of privilege, and the only time they’ve seen you is in places where you’ve served them, it’s hard for them to look at you any other way," she says.

Another audience member adds: "My button, I think, was that he had the power, he was the man that had the power to be God."

"I’ve always lived North, I am a graduate of an historically black college, lived in Africa, was in the Peace Corps, was married to an African, but I can’t tell you the number of times people accused me of not being pro-black," says a third woman.

Logan says there’s a reason that he’s bringing the play Defamation to unusual venues, such as libraries and houses of worship.

"When you walk into a church or a synagogue, you bring a greater sense of purpose," Logan says. "It’s a feeling I have, and that people take the play more seriously than if it were just part of a subscription series."

Defamation continues its run in the Chicago region through the end of this month, before moving on to Jackson, Mississippi.