Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"The Gammage Project" by Pitt Rep and The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

"The Gammage Project" is the exploration of the tragic 1995 murder of Jonny Gammage by police in the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood. A cast of almost 30 report "the circumstances and the aftermath of his violent death" at the Henry Heyman Theatre of the University of Pittsburgh, but is produced in conjunction with Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

My gosh, this play is boring.

Here are the reasons why:

The framework of the play is completely bizarre. It is a fragmented mix that begins in a classroom and then moves on to various locations, but for the majority of the time lingers in the most tedious place imaginable - a court room. That's right, 90% of this play is exposition. We, the audience, get presented minor lessons on the role of the NAACP (in general), how law enforcement jurisdictions work, and a whole, whole lot of facts that are true - completely true and horrifying in their reality - but completely un-theatrical. Who knew that police brutality could become boring - even after being drilled into your head for over two and a half hours.

"The Gammage Project" is begging to either be a straight play (with a set beginning-middle-end, cause and effect story arc, etc) or a documentary/monologue show that delves into the personal lives of the people involved (beyond the headlines i.e. most famously The Laramie Project). As it stands now, the show wavers in between the two, creating an ungratifying hodge-podge effect. And what's sad is that the play does show us places where an actual play could start! Maybe we inhabit the funeral of Jonny Gammage for two hours, maybe it's the coroner's inquest where the red flags of innocence were first realized, maybe it's even the bar of the bad cops, the misnomered "Good Ole Boys", where we follow the bad guys as they don't even bother to get their cover stories straight.

What makes it boring is that the play presents the facts in the very beginning. There is never any doubt in our minds who the bad guys are and that they are very bad. Not just bad, but so devoid of any natural humanity that nothing bad they do could honestly surprise us. But they are presented as bad, immoral, untrustworthy, and then that information is repeated and recycled the entire play. Nothing is left for the audience to discover. There are no surprises in the entire show, no revelations and no real driving action that makes us want to follow the story, just lots and lots of talking. This personification is accurate, by the way, but accuracy does make it theatrical. (Theatrical here meaning "interesting to watch".) What if there actually was doubt in the audience's mind that was progressively shrunk until we decided they were guilty. Wouldn't the tragedy of the piece be magnified when the cops go free?

And maybe this long-windedness of the never-ending courtroom scenes and facts could be forgiven if the play were straight transcripts, but the playwright's notes indicate that, "The Gammage Project is more relaxed in its use of found dialogue than many documentaries, but at 80% of what you will see is sculpted out of a great mass of data..." So not only do we have to watch this amazingly dull inquest (an inquest and three trials and part of a civil suit among others things) most of it is paraphrased.

All this being said, there are seven minutes of this play that are not only watcheable, but brilliant. The actual re-enactment of the murder (which we finally get to see rather than get informed of) is visceral and terrifying, crossing a line (maybe dangerously) into the audience and is one of the best examples  realistic stage violence Epony has ever seen. It's brilliant, and you can vault from your chair right after because it's right before intermission and downhill from there. Later on, the actor actually playing Gammage returns for the most human part of the show - a final conversation between him and his mother that drips with sad irony and hope that will never be realized. Things like, the fact that Gammage was engaged, would have fed the story so much. These two moments add volumes more than the hours of talking about it. Why the actual human element of the show was pushed to the tail-end of both acts is a complete mystery to the entire piece's detriment. This can only be credited to director Mark Clayton Southers, who shows he can make great when presented with good work.

While somewhat loathed to, the character of "The Joker" (played by Rico Romalus Parker) must be remarked on. While the character, who is supposed to act as "comic relief" and an alternate point of view for the horrendous event, is a nice burst of energy to a show with very little action, his jokes aren't particularly funny, and they eventually stop being jokes. Rather than the charm of Pryor or Cosby (who the character is suppose to emulate) that could attract anyone of any color, The Joker stops presenting as a comic and starts with a thinly-veiled animosity that makes the show heavier rather than relieving tension. Because everyone white in the audience wants to be lumped in with the Good Ole Boys.   

A word on the technical aspects. The lights are all right. The sound is good. The use of the movie screen is sporadic, but occasionally brilliant (The Juror who Declined Being Named), but honestly as long as the play is a shambles, nothing technological is going to make it anymore watcheable. Of the massive cast, a few notable actors actually manage to make the exposition interesting: Larry John Meyers as Cyril Wecht M.D., J.D. , Joseph Martinez as Bobby Del Greco Jr., Laci Mosely as Jonny's mother Narves Gammage (in a role far her elder), Ken Bolden as Anthony Krastek and finally, the man we saw far too little of Correy Talley as Jonny Gammage.

Apparently, there are lots of people who support the cops in question and the sneaking suspicion is that this play was written for them. It is a calm (for the most part) collection of the facts and how they were skewed to protect the white cops who killed a black man. However, the Joker  adds to the thread of dripping sarcasm throughout the piece directed at the rascist cops. For court scenes, two reporters sit as a peanut gallery and are "witty" at the blatant lies of the cops in court, despite the fact that these guys commited murder and are about to go free. They invite the audience (metaphorically) to point fingers with them at their ignorance, and anyone who supports them. And none of those people are probably going to see something called "The Gammage Project".

We, as an intellectual theatre-going audience, are already on Gammage's side. So give us something new to the story, give us the other, human side so the facts are not just facts, but actions by or against a man, community and/or race.

Tickets for the February performances of "The Gammage Project" (it moves on to the August Wilson Center in March) can be purchased at: http://www.play.pitt.edu/content/gammage-project

 - The Eponymous Theatre critic laments the closing of Kiva Han on Craig Street. Don't worry Kiva Han, Starbucks took over Pluto's role as a planet too.

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