October 3rd, 2015 marked twenty years since the world tuned in to watch O.J. Simpson receive his “not guilty” verdict. The drama surrounding the trial was intoxicating with twists and turns which shocked the courtroom on a daily basis. But, despite being a memorable courtroom drama, O.J.’s trial shed a light once again on race, police brutality and what it means to have a fair trial. Twenty years later, in a post-Obama world, we seem to be having the same conversations.
I recently sat down with the creative team developing David McMillan’s, Watching O.J., which will have it’s world premiere at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA.
“I never thought I’d write a play about this trial, but when I look back on the event, it makes sense,” McMillan says. “My mom would tape the trial and we’d watch it every night.”
McMillan grew up in Inglewood, but attended school in Santa Monica. “I was very much part of both the African-American and Caucasian communities in LA. I had a unique perspective, when the final verdict was read.”
For the past three years, McMillan has been developing his play at Ensemble Studio Theatre – LA alongside Keith Szarabajka and EST-LA’s former Artistic Director, Gates McFadden. Szarabajka, EST-LA’s new co-artistic director, was initially invited to act in the first reading but quickly recognized the play’s potential and decided to step up and direct the world premiere production. “Each time we read David’s play, important conversations kept surfacing in my life. I wanted to enter the zeitgeist and keep this conversation going. I grew up in the North with segregation practiced. David’s play is yet another reminder of how we are not living in a post racialist society,” reflected Szarabajka.
Szarabajka, a Chicago native, is also bringing a unique perspective to the world premiere production. “We can get caught up in speculating over who killed who, but at the bottom of this, there are families who lost loved ones,” Szarabajka said. “What’s fascinating to me is how David’s characters can have very different and well-educated views on the same exact moment.”
The process of new play development is something that Szarabajka is no stranger to because Szarabajka cut his teeth developing material at the Organic Theatre in Chicago. He worked alongside Stuart Gordon, Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz and the late Meshach Taylor.
“Developing a new play is a lot like cooking,” Szarabajka jokes. “If the idea catches, you add a little spice here, let it steep, and then add a little madeira there.”
After the play material was tender and ready to broil, Szarabajka and McMillan brought on their veteran cast including Angela Bullock, Robert Gossett, Tony Pasqualini, Lisa Renee Pitts, Tarah Pollock, Eve Sigall, Roy Vongtama, Kelly Wolf and Kareem Ferguson. Ferguson, who was also invited to be a part of the initial reading, has stayed close to the project over the past three years.
“This play, for me, is about trying to find a unity and a better understanding of where all this tension explodes from,” Ferguson commented. “It’s not just O.J.’s verdict that people were celebrating. It was all the unfair incidents that have happened to every black person up until then. We needed to express the years of pain and this is how it came out.”
McMillan, Szarabajka and the entire cast and crew have definitely tapped into the zeitgeist with this relevant production, exploring the humanity of race and social class.
“We have made tremendous strides together over the decades,” said McMillan. “But then something happens like Ferguson or O.J. and we are reminded that we have a lot of work still to do.”
Watching O.J. runs through November 8, 2015 at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA. Additional information: http://www.watchingoj.com/