When the Playwright Has an Agenda

Two years ago, most of the cast of a play entitled Ferguson quit during rehearsals for a staged reading of it in Los Angeles, accusing the script of being overly sympathetic to police officer Darren Wilson.

The play is now having a brief run Off-Off Broadway. I saw it, and reviewed it—and was confronted in ways I had not anticipated.

[The playwright] intends for the play not just to debunk the still common anti-police narrative in the Michael Brown case, but also to discredit the entire protest movement against police shooting of black people, as being based on a false premise.

To put together Ferguson, playwright Phelim McAleer used only verbatim testimony from the grand jury proceeding that resulted in the jurors’ decision not to indict officer Wilson in the 2014 shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old African American man. Winnowing down twenty-five days of testimony to ninety minutes, the production employs thirteen actors to portray twenty characters—prosecutors, witnesses, jurors, Wilson himself. It struck me as workmanlike, a courtroom drama with the tedious parts left in, but I didn’t detect the sort of obvious bias that would cause a cast to walk out in protest. The play clearly demolishes the credibility of the witnesses who testified that Brown put his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender, but the investigation by the Obama administration’s Department of Justice also dismissed that scenario, finding more credible the eyewitness testimony that Brown was approaching Wilson in a way that made Wilson feel threatened.

On the other hand, interviews with McAleer, a filmmaker and journalist who has not written a play before, make clear that, although he is promoting Ferguson as the unfiltered truth (the tagline is “Truth Matters”), he intends for the play not just to debunk the still common anti-police narrative in the Michael Brown case, but also to discredit the entire protest movement against police shooting of black people, as being based on a false premise.

Actor stands menacingly onstage with hands pointed like a gun
Ferguson. Photo courtesy of the production.

I believe that Ferguson could have been a better play if the playwright’s priorities had been more theatrical than political, dedicated to deep characterization or imaginative reconstruction or layered context. I also question whether relying solely on the grand jury transcript is the best way of telling the story accurately. I laid out my reasoning in some detail as part of my review—exploring, for example, the limitations of the grand jury process—and said at the end: “Phelim McAleer’s political agenda doesn’t necessarily mean he’s deliberately slanted the grand jury testimony, but it forces the casual theatregoer to be a wary juror and political analyst.”

Soon after, I started getting an unusual number of comments on my blog. Some were just vulgar insults; some accused me of writing leftist propaganda; others ranted about leftists in general, or about Michael Brown. But a couple—the ones I approved to post—had more intriguing critiques. Both said it was inappropriate for me to have addressed the “underlying politics,” of the play and that my review didn’t do what a theatre review is supposed to do—assess the dramatic worthiness of the play, and tell the reader whether it would be worth paying the 40 dollars to see it: “Which actors shined, if any? Did the play move the audience? Was the story captivating? How was the pacing and structure?”

The more persistent of the two saw the purpose of the play “to shock viewers into challenging the narrative” created by the mainstream media, and saw my review as allowing theatregoers an easy out to continue to see the lack of indictment as a miscarriage of justice. Why, he asked, couldn’t I let the theatregoers have their own experience, untainted by my doubts? If some theatregoers didn’t think the grand jury testimony could stand on its own as presented in the play, he said, they could “come to their own exploration of the underlying issues.”

How should a theatregoer approach a play based on real events?… How much do facts matter in plays from alternative perspectives that are explicitly based on true events?

I tracked the people who commented back to a politically conservative website that linked to my review, but even if the posters were operating from an agenda, is that enough of a reason to dismiss the questions they raised? One can ask the same question of a playwright with an agenda. Should their agenda, hidden or otherwise, determine how a theatregoer (or a theatre critic) reacts to a work of theatre?

This leads to other questions: How should a theatregoer approach a play based on real events? Is it the responsibility of the theatregoer to do independent research to determine the accuracy of what's on stage? Must we learn the political leanings and affiliations of the creative team? Is it a good or bad thing for a theatregoer to feel obligated to become a wary juror and political analyst? Or should the default position be to lay back and allow in a different perspective? How much do facts matter in plays from alternative perspectives that are explicitly based on true events?

I asked these questions as well of a play I saw the same week I saw Ferguson. The Siege is a play by Nabil al-Raee based on the 2002 occupation for thirty-nine days by armed Palestinians of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest sites in the Christian religion. This is a work of theatre by the Freedom Theatre, a company of Palestinians based in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin. Controversy had attended this play as it had Ferguson. According to the producer, the production at NYU’s Skirball Center followed “several failed attempts to present the play in the US, all stifled by internal pressure on venues.” Right before its NYU run, an Israeli participant in the Bethlehem standoff wrote his own account to counter the one in the play, and voiced his objection to The Siege: “It is inconceivable that such a respectable institution would allow such a distorted play to be presented.”

Three actors onstage, one holding a prop gun to his head
The Siege. Faisal Abualhayjaa, Alaa Abu Gharbieh, and Ghantus Wael, NYU’s Skirball Center. Photo by Ian Douglas.

The creative team behind The Siege intended it, as they wrote in a program note, to “tell the story behind the western propaganda, upending the dominant narrative”; that “terrorists” took the church “hostage.” In The Siege, “combatants” are taking “refuge.”

Yet, in my review of The Siege I didn’t feel as much need in effect to warn the audience as I had in Ferguson. In part, I think this was because there were fewer facts to assess, and less emphasis put on them. The Siege focuses on the emotions of its six characters, as they deal day after day with dwindling supplies and increasing anger and stress. Although the playwright interviewed participants in the siege, now in exile, the characters are unnamed and clearly filtered through his imaginative sensibility. The play doesn’t demand that the audience judge each of the characters, but asks that we empathize with them. I believe the play could have been better had the playwright gone further in this direction, developing the individuality of each of his characters, but his evident interest in the art of the drama made it feel less necessary to be wary of the underlying politics.

It was also reassuring that the play was not presented in isolation. There was a plethora of information in the program, and talkbacks and panel discussions throughout the run that put the drama in historical and political context.

At a time when people of different ideological viewpoints no longer watch the same news programs, and can’t even agree on what’s true and what’s fake, some theatregoers who share a worldview with a specific work of theatre may object to the very idea that its creators have an “agenda.”

They may also view questions of artistic quality as irrelevant or a sham, an excuse to dismiss a play because of its politics. Ironically, in my experience, the most politically partisan protest the loudest when criticism ventures outside of considerations of acting or lighting into political perspective. Yet, these are among the very people who attend these plays (or at least defend them) as a display of solidarity.

That’s as good a reason as any other to see a play. But it would be a shame if it became the only one.

Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.

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I really enjoyed this piece, as it really made me think and challenge some of the ways I see theatre. Particularly, you asked if we should know the political leanings of the creative team. As a student studying theatre, but also as a queer adult dedicated to fighting for the equality of myself and my peers, I wondered if that would really make or break a show for me. I don't want to spend my money on something created by someone with a history of racism, homophobia, etc. no matter how amazing the production might be, so what does that say about me as a theatre goer and critic? Definitely something I will continue to consider. Thank you!

Thanks for reading (and keeping the piece alive!) You bring up another issue (perhaps unintentionally), one very much in the news of late: Can you separate the art from the artist? That's a different question (though I realize there's overlap) from the question in this article: Can you and should you consider the art separately from the artist's agenda in creating that art? Not every artist has a conscious agenda in every work: A playwright who is, say, homophobia-impaired in real life, is not necessarily promoting a homophobic agenda in a play.

An interesting subject to write about. My favorite question was: How much do facts matter in plays from alternative perspectives that are explicitly based on true events? I'm also wondering how one discerns when an author's distinct perspective moves into the territory of agenda. When a play delves into a story hinging on a dualistic conflict, perhaps the playwright has done their job at an optimum level when they have explored the subject in such a way that an audience can discern something of value, and even a thread of truth, in both camps. If you raise the stakes high enough, perhaps you rise to another level that can see, comprehend and offer insight that moves one from the territory of right and wrong into a domain of possibility, or reconciliation, or compassion toward the complex, messy, painful, often horrifying state of the human condition.

I’ve long thought of James Baldwin,s novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, as exemplary of what you’re talking about. In the beginning, the protagonist’s father is horrible. But later we are let in on his life, offering insight and empathy.But that’s two characters in a family. Is this something we can or should expect from anybody (playwrights included) who feel threatened, indeed under attack, by “the other side”?

"Is this something we can or should expect from anybody (playwrights included) who feel threatened, indeed under attack, by 'the other side'?"

Wouldn't the answer to that depend on what "this" is that we are expecting and which sides each "we" are on? I would assume from the question that your personal "we" does not feel threatened or under attack from the attack Phelim McAleer's play attempts to describe... his agenda. Neither does my "we."

My own play's agenda, however, is the exact opposite of McAleer's. Do he and I need disclaimers read to audience's at the top of each performance or in marketing and sales materials? Isn't it up to the audience (critics included) to decide a play's "message" for themselves, perhaps influenced by other's opinions but, as critics do, decide for themselves, when they see the thing?

"...the purpose of the play 'to shock viewers into challenging the narrative' created by the mainstream media..." The narrative... is that the reporting of African-American eyewitness testimony? All playwrights express their opinions, points of view, hopes and dreams as do independent and mainstream media outlets. I've not yet read the review that began this discussion. But the fact that there is a discussion is testament to Theatre and Theatre Critics reason for being... to begin a discussion.

I’m hoping reporters don’t express their opinions, points of view, hopes and dreams, but rather that they gather verified facts to get at the best approximation of the truth. Theater artists are the ones who are supposed to be doing all that hoping and dreaming and pointing that you talk about. But what happens when artists see themselves at least in part as journalists, and their play as a periodical on stage, presenting “the truth” based on unverified, unverifiable or fudged facts? Especially in times like these, how tolerant should the average theatergoer be of such artists, and how wary of such plays?

"verified facts" What a concept... especially in times like these. I'm hoping reporters can find these, too... especially AFTER the jury absolves. But the blood, sweat and tears it takes to write and mount a play must be propelled by some sort of "agenda," doesn't it? Isn't there something in every playwright's head we're trying to get inside other's heads? Isn't that an agenda?

When I look up "agenda" in the dictionary, it just means a plan, something to be done. But it's often used now with a negative connotation, implying a "hidden agenda" or a "political agenda." It's not a great word, but I couldn't think of another one to express the idea that the playwright is trying to force you to think in a certain way, is not necessarily upfront about what they're trying to do, and apparently considers the art and craft of the drama a lower priority.

Yes! My point exactly that "agendas" are commonly held. But why is any Language Art created, if not to "urge" (rather than "force") the reader/listener/observer to think in a certain way about a certain thing? The whole purpose of Theatre is to show, rather than tell. So how "upfront" does a playwright need to be beyond writing the play and getting it on its feet?

I don't agree that "agendas," in the way I was trying to use that word, are commonly held.This distinction -- between "urging" and "forcing" -- is not minor. It is the difference between most plays and the plays that I'm attempting to talk about in this article. The next question could be: How do you judge that a play tries to force rather than urge? I suppose that's subjective. But that doesn't mean the distinction isn't meaningful.