…’oerstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the
mirror up to nature.
Hamlet speaks these words to the actors in a play he has devised to prove that his uncle Claudius is guilty of murdering his father. The prince’s play depicts the actual circumstances of the murder, of which he was told by his father’s ghost. It’s a trap, in which he can force Claudius to face the reality he is trying to hide.
Controversial conservative filmmaker Phelim McAleer has borrowed a page from the Bard’s play within a play for his latest stage work. In “Ferguson,” performed in staged readings in Los Angeles this past week, McAleer uses the actual testimony from the Ferguson Grand Jury inquiry into Daniel Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown to set a trap for liberal audiences.
The conceit of “Ferguson” is that audience members are grand jurors, mulling the facts from the actual testimony to decide whether Officer Wilson should be indicted. After each reading, the audience will vote on whether Wilson should face trial. This is a form known as Verbatim Theater, in which the text is derived from original sources without any additions.
Altercations, Abdications, and Controversy
Of course, there are subtractions, and the play runs 55 minutes although obviously the total testimony ran much longer, so McAleer was picking and choosing what statements to use. After the first reading, McAleer and an audience member got into a confrontation captured on video. This is not a common post-reading occurrence. Usually people consume cheese and moderately priced wine while talking about how the play flowed. But this play had become controversial even before its first reading.
Just days before the reading was set to happen, several actors quit the play in protest over what they view as its one-sided treatment of the incident. The actors, who apparently somehow had no idea who McAleer is or what he does, were shocked to discover that the work presents Brown, and his defenders in a very poor light. One of the actors, Donzaleigh Abernathy, accuses McAleer of simply advancing his own agenda, rather than seeking to explore with audiences the truth of the matter.
So did the playwright, through a careful editing of actual testimony done in good faith, arrive at the same conclusion as the Justice Department, that Wilson acted in a justified manner? Or did he select material to advance his pro-Wilson agenda?
How Did the Theater World Treat McAleer’s Peers?
In examining the responsibility of theater creators who present “true” stories on stage, it’s useful to look at some recent examples from the Left, that received a little more leeway. The first parallel that presents itself is Moises Kaufman’s 2000 play, “The Laramie Project.” Based on the tragic and brutal death of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming, “The Laramie Project” has become a staple in the regional, college and even high school canon since its premiere. A powerful and provocative work of art, “The Laramie Project” has also recently been shown to present an inaccurate version of historical events.
In his 2013 book, “The Book of Matt,” author Stephen Jimenez obliterates the common narrative of Shepard’s death. It was not a hate crime committed by two homophobes for no good reason, but rather a complicated tale of drug dealing gone wrong. The book’s biggest bombshell was that Shepard was killed by a man he had a sexual relationship with. While none of this minimizes the horror of Shepard’s killing, it does ask serious questions about when and how artists use true events to create their work—and, more importantly, how educators should use those works in teaching children.
When a high school uses a play like “The Laramie Project” to promote tolerance towards the LGBT community, it must hold itself to certain standards. The most basic being: are we teaching kids what really happened? Some parents (and students) at schools producing “The Laramie Project” have real concerns about this Progressive mythology being presented as fact to their children. Surely, if McAleer, who presents not a single word that wasn’t given in sworn testimony, is being held to the standard of “truth,” then “The Laramie Project” must be held to that standard. But clearly it is not. And it’s not the first time.
It’s Not Just Theater
In 2012, monologist Mike Daisey found himself and NPR’s “This American Life” in a firestorm over stories he wrote into his show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey had gone to China to investigate abuses at Apple’s Foxconn plant. In his attempt to humanize the suffering of its workers and create a compelling narrative, Daisey made up arresting details. When “This American Life” featured sections of his monologue on their popular radio show, the fabrications came to light. NPR was forced to retract the show.
Daisey has been frank, though not exactly contrite, about his fabulism in the wake of the incident. His main defense is that he is an artist, not a journalist (He is now a regular contributor to The Guardian. One hopes he is wearing his journalism hat for that gig). But even as an admirer of Daisey’s art, I find this defense quite evasive and weak.
If in fact the conditions at Foxconn are horrible (and they may well be), inventing stories about the workers only serves to undermine the power of his artistic exploration of their suffering. This isn’t about ethics in journalism, or ethics in art, it’s about the expectations your audience has when you deliver your product. And if you lie to them, you are engaged in a bad practice.
This brings us back to “Ferguson.” Is McAleer getting cute with what he includes and doesn’t? Perhaps. But thus far none of the critics or offended actors have offered any omitted testimony that would alter the play’s conclusions. Instead, there has been a milquetoast demand for balance. But if President Obama’s Justice Department has taken a good look at the grand jury and said it found correctly, then on what basis is McAleer being impugned? And why aren’t productions of “The Laramie Project,” especially those in schools, being subjected to this same standard of accuracy?
Lest we think these are esoteric questions about how art depicts real history we found out this week from Oprah Winfrey that every high school in America is being offered free copies of the recent film “Selma,” along with study guides. “Selma,” although a fine work of art, is terrible history. It has been shown to be wrong in several key areas, many involving the role of Lyndon Johnson in the civil-rights movement. Like Daisey, its director Ava DuVernay insists that she is an artist, not a historian. That’s fine for the movies, but not for teaching American kids.
Is ‘Ferguson’ In the Tradition of ‘Hamlet’?
The play within a play in Hamlet is not a very good play. The young prince creates a piece of propaganda, with no purpose beyond catching the conscience of King Claudius and exposing his crimes. Hamlet makes no effort to explain Claudius’ actions, to explain what led to his act of murder. But of course Shakespeare, in the broader play, does. We see Claudius in love with Gertrude, even affectionate to Hamlet. Claudius is a complex figure whose crime is one of passion, whose selfish actions destroy the lives of those he loves. That is how a great artist depicts tragedy.
In “Ferguson,” is McAleer acting in the tradition of “Hamlet,” or the tradition of Shakespeare? It’s hard to say. One of the harshest critics in his own cast is Abernathy, the daughter of civil-rights giant Ralph David Abernathy. Was it mere coincidence that an actor so likely to publicly criticize the work was cast? Did Abernathy really accept the part completely unaware of the politics of its producer? Both contingencies seem remote.
Whatever is going on, it’s worked out well for the production. Staged readings are the single-A baseball of theater (honestly more like the American Legion Leagues), but “Ferguson” has made national headlines without a single performance. You can chalk that up in part to the controversial subject matter, but in no small part it is based on the play’s claim to truth.
Art can’t give us truth. James Joyce wrote: “Truth is beheld by the intellect which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the intelligible: beauty is beheld by the imagination which is appeased by the most satisfying relations of the sensible.” Rarely are both ever beheld at the same time. In some ways, Joyce is describing the difference between the seemingly unfeeling conservatives and seemingly unknowing liberals in America today.
The future of “Ferguson” is in as much doubt as that of Ferguson, the historic moment. Was Brown’s death a watershed moment in the civil-rights movement? Will our country’s students eventually be provided study guides about it? Likely not.
As Jonathan Capehart has noted in a piece as steeped in sadness as it is in class, he was fooled by the narrative. To his credit, he invites us to learn from that mistake and grow from it. I hope McAleer is operating from the same honest principles Capehart was. I’m not entirely sure that he is. But whatever the case, it’s time for all of us to rely less on the beauty of narrative and rely more on the uncomfortable intelligibility of truth.