I knew next to nothing about the playwright Phelim McAleer or his new play The $18-Billion Prize before reviewing it for the Bay Area theater site Theatrius.com. I certainly didn’t expect that reviewing this play would lead to the loss of my position. There were warnings, however; there was an email from the San Francisco Critics Circle going around to reviewers, cautioning that McAleer’s play might be dangerously biased against the environmental movement, among its other sins.
McAleer’s $18-Billion Prize, cowritten by Jonathan Leaf, recounts aspects of the famous Ecuador v. Chevron case. Some brief background is in order. In 1972, Texaco Petroleum began drilling for oil in Ecuador. Later, Texaco transferred management to the state-run company Petroecuador, ending its operations in the country by 1993. Before leaving, Texaco spent $40 million on a remediation program to replace contaminated soil and replant cleared lands, and audits have concluded that this work was done responsibly. All of this was overseen and approved by the Ecuadorian government. Twenty years later, however, Ecuador changed tack and sued Chevron (which had merged with Texaco) for billions of dollars in environmental and social damages.
New York attorney Steven Donziger represented Ecuador, suing Chevron in any court that would hear the case. Ecuadorian courts ruled against the company, awarding $18 billion in damages, but the judgment has proved to be unenforceable. After years of this global chase, Steven Donziger’s own alleged misdeeds surfaced, and he was sued by Chevron under the RICO Act for conspiring to corruptly influence the Ecuadorian litigation. It is this six-week trial, Chevron v. Donziger, that is the focus of McAleer’s play. Using court transcripts, the play uncovers the extent of Steven Donziger’s corruption, including fraud, fabrication of evidence, and the bribing of an Ecuadorian judge.
I found the play to be wildly entertaining and refreshing, and I was eager to meet the cast and crew at the reception afterwards. It was there that I first met Phelim McAleer. I congratulated him and told him that I was reviewing the play for Theatrius and that I had received an email warning me of his play’s contents. McAleer wasn’t surprised and told me that the group that had drafted the email was the environmental NGO Amazon Watch (members of which had attended the previous night’s performance in order to disrupt it). Eager to give the play the fair shake that I suspected it wouldn’t get elsewhere, I told the playwright that I would get the review out as soon as I could. I didn’t yet know what I was getting into.
My editor, Barry Horwitz, a 79-year-old retired U.C. Berkeley English professor and the founder of Theatrius, had first been described to me by a mutual friend as “Berkeley through and through.” Barry talks fast: Within the first 20 minutes of meeting him, I learned of his dodging the draft by fleeing to Paris, of his marching with Mario Savio during Berkeley’s “Free Speech Movement,” and that Reagan ruined everything. So I can’t say I was too surprised that Horwitz found my positive review of a play in which Chevron is portrayed as the victim to be problematic.
For several days, I exchanged emails back and forth with Horwitz, attempting to arrive at a compromise draft of my review. His emails were anguished and lengthy. He was concerned that I had not been critical enough of McAleer’s selective use of verbatim transcripts from the court case. Some of his concerns were downright conspiratorial — he suspected the play had secret corporate backers, despite its transparent crowdfunding (as of now, the play has not even achieved half its crowdfunding goal).
In my last conversation with Horwitz, he sounded distraught. He was torn between upholding the editorial principles of Theatrius and ostracizing a play that he truly found to be “contributing to bad causes.” He told me this was the hardest thing he had ever had to deal with at Theatrius and that he was losing sleep over it. I told him to take it easy (he was on vacation in Paris) and that I was confident we could come to a compromise. I hung up and left to meet with Phelim McAleer.
This time, I met McAleer in a trendy downtown San Francisco hotel. I had got in touch with him through his publicist a few days prior, referring to my publishing ordeal and hoping for a sympathetic ear. McAleer was disappointed to hear about my troubles with the review, which he said was part of a larger theme. According to him, San Francisco’s “theatrical establishment” has boycotted his project, and everything from staffing up to hiring a venue had been next to impossible. Even his original lead actor quit in protest of the play’s political message. (McAleer’s previous play, Ferguson, saw nine of its twelve actors quit for similar reasons.)
Theatrius had sent another reviewer to the play — to get right what I had apparently got wrong.
At the close of our lunch, McAleer asked me to do what I could to get the review published. That night, I made a few of Horwitz’s more benign suggested edits and submitted my final draft. I explicitly communicated that I could not continue writing for Theatrius if the review was not published. I even offered the suggestion that Horwitz put a disclaimer above my review: “This review does not reflect the views of Theatrius.”
Two days later, McAleer forwarded to me an email that was sent to his publicist from Theatrius. Unbeknownst to me, Theatrius had sent another reviewer to the play — to get right what I had apparently got wrong.
Theatrius said it couldn’t publish my review because “it would be dangerous” to publicize a play with such an agenda (the word “dangerous” was used three times). The audience, according to Theatrius, seemed “already politically persuaded” or could possibly even be a Chevron plant.
Some may say that the spiking of my review is a small thing that can be ignored. It’s not. And it shouldn’t be. This is how free expression gets denatured: not by the government thumb, but through institutionalized bias. The $18-Billion Prize is not an overtly political play — corruption is nonpartisan — but the antagonists and protagonists have the wrong names, the wrong labels. I didn’t set out to litigate or defend the facts as they’re laid out in McAleer’s play. I did, however, find the production stimulating, thought-provoking, entertaining, and . . . harmless. How fragile must we be to fear art such as this?
Had it been published, my review would have ended thus:
This is not a play that is against the environmental movement, nor contra progressive values. This is a play that reminds us that integrity matters, an important and timely reminder in the age of #RESIST. “By any means necessary” — an all too popular tagline of the #Resistance — is a strategy which fatally corrupts any cause, no matter how just, and stems from the same philosophy underlying Donziger’s chilling proclamation: “Facts do not exist, facts are created.”