Ferguson: A Dramatist Corrects Journalists

Renika Williams and Ian Campbell Dunn in Ferguson (Photo: Clay Anderson)
Playwright Phelim McAleer has done a public service in depicting how all the destruction that the town rained down on itself sprang from one man’s errant decision.

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.)

Thirteen actors, some performing multiple roles, play the witnesses and the prosecutors who question them in a case everyone is aware the world is watching. Brown, routinely described in the media as an “unarmed teen,” as if the fists of an enraged 289-pound man do not constitute a threat, was under the influence of a large dose of marijuana when he and his friend Johnson were stopped by Wilson because they were walking down the double yellow line in the middle of the street. In Brown’s right hand, the officer noticed, was a box of cigarillos, which was of interest because he had just heard over the radio that a man matching Brown’s description had just robbed a small convenience store of a box of cigarillos and angrily shoved a clerk who tried to stop him.

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.

Johnson’s story falls apart when the play’s last witness, Ciara Jenkins (underplayed to wonderful effect by Renika Williams), begins to speak. A black woman, she is a disinterested observer who happened to be behind Brown and Wilson as their confrontation escalated. She recalls Brown angrily charging at Wilson like a football player, at no point raising his hands in submission. Perhaps the wounded Brown was staggering? No, she says, he was charging while the officer repeatedly shouted at him to stop before finally shooting him. Could the encounter have ended a different way? Yes, she offers. Brown could have just stopped running. “I don’t understand why he just didn’t stop,” she says, quietly, sensibly, devastatingly. All of the destruction Ferguson rained down on itself for the year that followed sprang from that one errant decision: An incensed 18-year-old, his mind addled by cannabis, gave a police officer no choice.


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— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.

Correction: Ferguson closes November 5, not November 4, as this articler originally stated.


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