Unjustifiable Acts

Goodman Theatre Studio

By Jack Helbig

I’m so sick of all the media hoopla over O.J. that I don’t really care anymore whether or not he killed his wife. But I am pleased that the jury’s controversial not-guilty verdict has forced journalists to acknowledge, if only for a minute or two, that race relations are much more strained in this country than usually reported. Or portrayed on TV. Thanks to the O.J. verdict, and all the talk that followed, we know that whites and African-Americans have two starkly different views of what life is like in America, especially regarding the justice system–or the “just us” system, as a black leader quips in Unjustifiable Acts. He adds: “Just us charged with the crime, just us doing the time.”

In Unjustifiable Acts Aaron Iverson ambitiously attempts to portray both sides of this great divide, creating a work that gives us both black and white views of the world. Setting the play in an unnamed major metropolitan area, he offers us a handful of public figures–a white DA, a black councilwoman, a publicity-loving black religious leader–and then explores what happens when worldviews collide. The trigger for the plot is the shooting of a black man by a white female police officer. Thanks to the efforts of a grandstanding black leader and a publicity-hungry white TV journalist happy to put him on the news, this incident becomes a major media event, the kind of event a cynical white DA hoping for reelection can’t help but take advantage of.

Already you can see Iverson’s dilemma. In an effort to create a more compelling story, he resorts to the almost three-dimensional stock characters who populate crime dramas. Here we have the witty, righteously angry Reverend A.M. Powers; the puffed-up pretty-boy politician Jack Boyle; the tough-talking, insincere TV reporter. Each is drawn with just enough detail to hold us right through the commercials.

Iverson’s approach is hardly surprising given his choice of material–the story does feel as if it were lifted from one of those intensely realistic TV dramas like Homicide or Law & Order. It may not be insignificant that Iverson currently resides in LA. (Is there something in the air out there that makes everyone see life as a made-for-TV movie?) And if this were all there was to the play, I would dismiss it as just another example of television’s deleterious influence on theater. But every once in a while a bit of real life flashes through Unjustifiable Acts, and the effect is bracing.

Iverson doesn’t flinch, for example, when it comes to some of the more difficult forms of racial tension, such as the jealousy some black women feel toward the blond white women attractive to some black men. Nor is he afraid to let his black characters say some brutally honest things about being black in a white-dominated society. Reverend Powers gets off some great ones, like the bitter quip about the “just us” system. And when Powers is asked if he’s happy that the female officer has been indicted, he shoots back: “Are you happy when you flip the switch and the light goes on?” Much of Powers’s charisma, however, comes from Ellis Foster’s excellent take on the sly, grumbling reverend. It’s unfortunate that near the end of the play Iverson waffles on the character, giving Powers a few clownish lines–“My experiences exceed my limitations,” for example. These make him seem, for a second or two, less intelligent than Foster has played him.

The problem is that Unjustifiable Acts is really two plays, one bold and fresh and angry, the other slick and trite and prime-time predictable. In the daring play Iverson offers an honest intensity about race relations and the game of racial politics, and this play is worthy of the talents of director Harry J. Lennix and a cast that includes Amy Morton, David New, and Rengin Altay. This is the play that had the audience nodding in agreement and smiling or sighing sadly to themselves that, yes, this is how the ugly world works. But the other play, the glossy LA play, gets the audience off the hook, diverting us with silly, shallow characters like the narcissistic DA and with a histrionic story line that buries real issues beneath a heap of aimless and improbable plot twists.

At the center of this play is the protagonist, James Lucas, a cipher of a poor black lawyer who, in defending the white police officer, allows her to lie to him repeatedly and then seduce him. Especially as Lucas is portrayed by Tim Rhoze he’s neither a hero nor an antihero; he’s just one of those attractive nobodies who photograph well and look great on TV even when they signify nothing.

Worse still is the character Amy Morton so expertly plays, Officer Christine Vogel. Like Lucas, Vogel is at the center of the play, but she changes so radically moment by moment to suit the dictates of Iverson’s story that she seems less a coherent character than a plot device. One minute she’s a burnt-out cop on a beat, the next a woman who’s suffered sexual harassment on the job, and a minute later she morphs into one of those succubi who populate detective stories. By the end of the play we’re not surprised by anything she says or does, which robs the final surprising twist of all its potential power.

Watching this production, it’s not hard to see which of Iverson’s two plays Lennix has given his heart to. He directs the television-story sections crisply and efficiently and with just the right mix of glossy production values. Still, what come to life are the edgier, rawer sections, those dominated by Reverend Powers or Councilwoman Wells (ably played by Sylvia Carter). It was the same when I first saw Harry J. Lennix in The Meeting seven years ago: his angry, hard-edged performance as Malcolm X is what made that play live for me. The attraction is the same in both cases: the truth. It may not be pretty, but it will set us free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Eric Y. Exit.