Missouri declared itself under a state of emergency on two occasions, months apart, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on August 9, 2014, and there were many other outbursts of violence and property destruction. All of this unrest was based on a lie started by Brown’s unreliable friend Dorian Johnson and amplified by an eager, credulous media: That Brown was unresisting, had his hands in the air and was begging not to be shot when he was killed by police officer Darren Wilson.
Sometimes it falls to a dramatist to correct journalists, and the journalist-turned-filmmaker-turned playwright Phelim McAleer has done a public service in sifting out the truth in Ferguson, a breathless 90-minute courtroom drama in which all dialogue is taken verbatim from the 25-day grand-jury proceedings that resulted in a decision not to charge Wilson. (The current production closes November 5 at the 30th Street Theatre in Manhattan but the play, which is being funded via crowdsourcing, will be restaged later in a different venue if interest is sufficient.)
McAleer and director Jerry Dixon begin the play, which takes place on a single set representing the grand-jury room, in an unassuming manner. Secondary witnesses describe unimportant encounters with Brown in the hours before he lost his life at noon. One laborer remarks that Brown was mentally “slow.” A cop who trained Wilson describes him as eager to work with the mostly black community and says he enjoyed buying meals for young people. The testimony of one sketchy witness, a white woman, falls apart when she says she walked through a passage that was physically blocked, and denies having read newspaper accounts of the shooting. In fact, she has posted Facebook comments beneath one such story, comments expressing such sentiments as “They need to kill the f*****g n*****s.” Another witness, a black man, has told the FBI he saw Wilson standing over the prone body of Brown pumping many bullets into his back. A prosecutor drily informs him that as he has a) given a statement inconsistent with the autopsy report and b) changed his story, he stands no chance of being invited to testify at any trial in the matter.
When it comes time for the principal witnesses to relate their stories, the play becomes tense, even spellbinding. Once things get going, you won’t look at your watch. Toggling between the recollections of Wilson (who volunteered his testimony) and Johnson, who was by Brown’s side throughout the encounter with the officer, creates a broad picture of what happened, but there is a spectacular divergence in the two men’s testimony when it comes to the final couple of minutes of Brown’s life. Johnson insists that his friend was well clear of the car when Wilson first grabbed, then shot him. But physical evidence supports Wilson’s claim that Brown leaned into the police vehicle to punch the seated officer repeatedly and grab his gun, on which Brown’s DNA was found. As Wilson, Ian Campbell Dunn is a standout, growing sweaty and panicky as he relives the terror of fighting Brown for control of his gun. As Johnson, Cedric Benjamin is urgent, pleading, agitated for a different reason: His version of events will not stand up to scrutiny.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.
Correction: Ferguson closes November 5, not November 4, as this articler originally stated.