A Matter of Perspective is a provocative new work that examines racial tensions in the context of jury deliberations. It is a stimulating work with the potential for greater accomplishment, but like much of today’s racial dialogue, gets caught up in preconceptions and animosity that limit its contributions.
The story begins as an eight person jury meets to begin deliberations in a case involving a charge of resisting arrest. A young black man was arrested by two white police officers after being interrupted during a sex act in a car on a public street. The issue is whether the car moved and whether that movement was due to an intentional attempt by the defendant to flee the police.
The choice of crime is just one of many interesting artistic choices of local playwright C. G. Gardiner. It doesn’t offer the high stakes of homicide and a potential death penalty like the classic jury trial play or Twelve Angry Men. On the other hand, the issue is realistic and allows jurors (and the audience) to question whether this case should have been prosecuted at all.
Speaking of Twelve Angry Men, this biracial jury (five African Americans and three Caucasians, five women and three men) features three really angry jurors. On the scale of whether to consider the facts versus having strong predispositions based upon race, two of the African Americans (Eli El as Juror No. 5 and IO Browne as Juror No. 3) instantly assume that the white officers are lying just to convict a black defendant. They both give strong, electric performances, but while their instant positions are realistic, it takes away from the drama of character development during the deliberations.
A Matter of Perspective
closes October 16, 2016
Details and tickets
Similarly unyielding on the other end of the spectrum is Juror No. 4. He’s not only a prejudiced Caucasian man who assumes that young black men are likely criminals, he’s actually a white supremacist who also insults Jews and women. (The past trial lawyer in me wonders how he got through jury selection process). Again, the character provides a strong part, ably performed by Todd Leatherbury, but the role is a little over the top.
Thankfully there are some more well-rounded jurors, although all generally divide predictably along racial lines. The most open-minded jurors are Juror No. 2 (Hillary Mazur), a Jewish woman elected as foreperson because of her prior experience; Juror No. 8 (Faith Nelson), a woman of Caribbean heritage who believes that race shouldn’t affect their deliberations; and, Juror No. 7 (Martece Caudle) who gives a refreshing portrait of an intellectual young African American who took excellent trial notes and offers intelligent analysis of the evidence.
Rounding out the jury are two of the most interesting characters. Juror No. 6 (Suzanne Edgar) is a Caucasian woman whose devotion to performing her “civic duty” irritates some of the jurors, but who is given a great character reveal late in the play. Some of the characters are also given the chance for monologues about the impact of race upon themselves and family members, but none are more powerful than the story chillingly related by Juror No. 1 (Dolly Turner) about an uncle who was subjected to mob injustice in the pre-Civil Rights era South.
The play is at its best when it stays closest to the central task of trying to find the truth. Characters debate whether small differences in testimony are really indicative of lying or are just “a matter of perspective,” a nice phrase which also summarizes the larger theme of viewing similar acts through racially-tinged lenses. Also, the debate focuses on realistic issues of credibility involving the two officers versus the incentive of the defendant to lie, including the impact on his credibility of a prior conviction.
Unfortunately, the play doesn’t just address the racial implications of this case and let the audience extrapolate to the larger issues. It includes not just O.J. Simpson, but slavery, the impacts of systemic prejudice, the issue of reparations, and other issues which feel like unlikely broad digressions, given the context.
In addition, the personal conflicts, insults, and disgusting slurs between characters become extreme and redundant. While these conflicts are designed to lead to a shocking ending, that ending also seems abrupt, unrealistic, and convenient.
Kudos go to Live Garra Theatre, Artistic Director Wanda Whiteside (who also directed the play), and playwright C. G. Gardiner for bringing to the stage a timely look at today’s racial tensions in law enforcement. The cast is also to be commended for providing interesting character portraits, although the opening night interactions weren’t always as tight as designed. The drama, however, could benefit with more refinement and subtlety. The issues are compelling enough without the need to bludgeon the audience so strongly.
A Matter of Perspective by C. G. Gardiner. Directed by Wanda Whiteside. Featuring IO Browne, Martece Caudle, Suzanne Edgar, Eli El, Todd Leatherbury, Hillary Mazur, Faith Nelson, and Dolly Turner. Stage Manager: Mavonte Johnson. Managing Director: Carol Blue. Presented by Live Garra Theatre. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.