A ‘verbatim theater’ staging of grand jury proceedings that followed the shooting of Michael Brown allows audiences to choose the fate of police officer Darren Wilson

Marina del Rey’s Phelim McAleer says that media coverage of the Brown shooting failed to separate fact from fiction

Marina del Rey’s Phelim McAleer says that media coverage of the Brown shooting failed to separate fact from fiction

By Michael Aushenker

The fatal shooting of black teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., not only rocked the racially and economically divided St. Louis suburb, it shook an entire nation.

A grand jury panel’s subsequent decision not to indict Wilson on charges of manslaughter or murder was met with widespread protest and frustration by many people who no doubt would have liked to speak their minds as part of the jury.

For four nights at the Odyssey Theatre, audiences will do just that.

“Ferguson” is a play that reenacts the Brown shooting according to grand jury transcripts of witness testimony to be delivered on stage by a cast of 13 actors portraying 20 people involved in the case.

At the story’s end, audience members take on the jury’s role and must decide whether to indict Wilson.

“Every word on that stage is uttered by a witness. It’s all as said in the grand jury room,” said “Ferguson” playwright Phelim McAleer, a Marina del Rey resident. “It’s verbatim theater.”

Throughout the 1990s, McAleer worked in Belfast as a reporter for the Irish News and the UK Sunday Times. His beat: covering the religious, social and political violence that tore his native Ireland asunder.

The play, he said, “is an extension of my journalism.”

Ireland during The Troubles gives McAleer a particular frame of reference for when Americans discuss the para-militarization of the police.

“We had an actual shoot-to-kill policy by the police,” McAleer said.

Despite the sense of menace and danger hanging over Ireland, “to be honest, I loved the news beat,” he said. “It was very hairy at times, but I’m not looking for anyone’s sympathy.”

McAleer and his wife briefly lived in Washington D.C. before relocating to Marina del Rey in 2010. It was while on a visit to Los Angeles that he discovered the Marina Peninsula and fell in love with the place.

Although McAleer left Ireland, he did not part ways with his journalistic instincts. His interest in staging a play in which audiences can “see eyewitness testimony spoken by real people and see what the grand jury saw” was driven by dissatisfaction with media coverage of the shooting and its fallout.

McAleer deems coverage of the Brown shooting “the death of decent, skeptical journalism”: “They became stenographers for liars rather than skeptics. It’s
a journalist’s job to check the veracity of the video evidence,” he said.

“Many who claim they saw the shooting were lying through their teeth,” McAleer said of some of the grand jury testimony.

He also believes the media’s
sins went beyond disseminating misinformation aggregated from other sources.

“They were very industrious
in promoting lies. This is not laziness, this is hard work,” McAleer said. “Many of the things that people said were physically impossible. People deserve the truth, and the truth
is in the grand jury testimony. … Every night, the audience is
going to be able to vote on whether to indict Darrell
Johnson.”

McAleer said personal ambitions don’t, however, come from a place of social or political activism.

“It’s not a journalist’s job to change the world. It’s not their call,” he said.

The play, he said, is “a framework to get the truth out. I’m not interested in solving the world’s problems; it’s telling the truth.”

“Ferguson,” directed by Nick DeGruccio, runs for four performances — at 7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday — at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. $65. Call (310) 477-2055, ext. 2, or visit fergusontheplay.com.

michael@argonautnews.com

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