Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2015
Veteran actor Philip Casnoff hadn’t read the full script yet when he arrived for the first rehearsal of “Ferguson,” a play chronicling the shooting of Michael Brown by a Missouri police officer.
Casnoff thought he knew what the play, set for a four-day staged reading starting Sunday at the Odyssey Theater, would be about: the wilderness of testimony the grand jury navigated while investigating the day Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the unarmed 18-year-old. Casnoff presumed a variety of viewpoints, the fog of truth.
Then he read the script, which tells the story that Brown didn’t have his hands up and that he charged at Wilson.
Now, in a case of art imitating life, the play is experiencing the kind of ill will and mistrust that erupted from the city it attempts to portray. Part of the 13-member cast is in revolt–Casnoff and four others have quit–as the playwright and actors are locked in a fundamental disagreement over how to tell the story of Brown’s death.
Though the grand jury declined to indict Wilson after some witnesses and physical evidence supported his account of events, the tone of the play shocked some actors.
“It felt like the purpose of the piece was to show, ‘Of course he was not indicted–here’s why,'” Casnoff said. He said that after he learned who the play’s author was, Casnoff, who describes himself as “very liberal, left-wing-leaning,” thought, “Whoa, this is not the place for me to be.”
Through testimony taken from grand jury transcripts, the play ends with a witness telling a prosecutor that Wilson was justified in killing Brown. The audience is then supposed to vote on whether Wilson should have been indicted.
The cast members who quit questioned the motivations of the playwright, Phelim McAleer.
McAleer, a conservative filmmaker and journalist from Ireland now living in Marina del Rey, said he’s just interested in the truth.
“The truth is the truth. If it doesn’t fit in with their beliefs, they need to change their beliefs,” said McAleer, who declined to say whether Wilson should have been indicted but said his research shows the hands-up claim is bogus. “All the people who testified that he had his hands up, it was pretty much demolished in grand jury testimony.”
If the rest of the decidedly more liberal cast resigns–some actors are leaning that way–McAleer said he’ll find a new cast. He also hopes to put the show on YouTube and bring the production to Ferguson itself.
During the “Ferguson” rehearsal, the performers balked after realizing the only witness in McAleer’s play who says Brown had his hands up is immediately discredited by an FBI agent.
McAleer’s play also ends with a damning exchange between a witness and prosecutor.
“Do you feel like this could have ended up any other way?” the prosecutor asks.
“Yeah, it could have, if Michael Brown had just stopped running” toward Wilson, says the witness, who is identified as Witness 48 in the grand jury transcripts, but who is given a pseudonym in the play and cast with a young black actress. “It could have ended another way. The officer had no other choice.”
McAleer was unapologetic, and waved away criticism.
“These are people who claim to love diversity, and they don’t love diversity–they just want people to agree with them,” he said.
So with or without his cast, McAleer said, the show will go on.