Over several decades Attilio Favorini, founder of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theatre Arts, has constantly enriched and enlightened this community. In the course of that time he’s written quite a few plays.
Now he’s taking on a serious, significant story about actual tragic events in the community, turning that into a docudrama, The Gammage Project. The modest title defines the framework, making it suggest a documentary rather than a drama, as if a work in progress. And it does indeed look unfinished, needing more work. The canvas with which he seeks to fill the framework has so much happening in so many corners plus along the edges that the central subject gets overwhelmed by too much detail. His worthy offering still needs to realize its potential as an important work saying important things.
It’s difficult to speak of this as theatre; the story is so close to home. It looks real. Most actors don’t seem to be acting. They seem to be being. Credit director Mark Clayton Southers for keeping that tone. And, during several heartbreaking scenes, that very quality grabbed me emotionally. Most disturbing of all, fight choreographer Joseph Martinez staged Gammage’s death so graphically that, at the sudden intermission which followed, I went off and privately wept. Meanwhile other people in the lobby chatted, grinned and snacked as if this was attending entertainment. Sure, I know it’s theatre, but the representation of that young man’s tragic death didn’t strike me as art. It struck me in the heart. Another time, at the Gammage funeral, Les Howard as the minister spoke so powerfully and so movingly it was all I could do to not call out in response as if in a real service. And when Laci Mosely as Jonny’s mother broke, no longer able to speak to a reporter, how could we watching that moment not cry with her? Is this theatre? It felt like testifying to truth.
Favorini certainly did massive amounts of research, but he needs someone else’s eyes and ears to decide what not to say, what not to tell. So far, with at least 25 people on stage representing more than 40 characters, most seem to have no specific personalities, even though identified by name. And, when some of them double, they look unchanged with the same clothes, the same voices, the same inflections. Southers needs to work on that.
I see no point in describing the essence of the story. The docudrama is the story, not hard to follow, despite an overabundance of unfocused details. And Favorini has problems which would be hard for anyone to surmount: this is about real people, most of them alive today. Near us. So, although many people believe that the five officers accused of Jonny Gammage’s death were guilty, representing them on stage, doing so in such a way as to call them guilty could be walking over the edge in law-suit territory.
However, Favorini could have done more to concentrate on those officers. They are as central to the story as Jonny, who, likewise, is barely represented. Instead there are other police, attorneys, students studying to be attorneys, judges, prosecutors, witnesses, reporters, and a lot of community people. And sometimes, during trial scenes, usually a source for intense drama, defusing the impact, attorneys or other people explain what happened in court rather than some kind of staging to let the audience see what happened. When given a chance, though, to actually behave like attorneys, Ken Bolden and Larry John Meyers give courtroom drama the substance it deserves.
This cast has a lot of students in roles. Most do reasonably well delivering their lines. But, in his short and crucial final scene as Jonny, I found Pitt student Correy Talley nearly unintelligible.
There were times throughout what seemed like an overlong running time when I had the impression that several people in the cast were dealing with dialogue that still needed to be set. On opening night, talented and frequently seen local actors such as John Gresh and Michael Moats looked at times as if struggling with their lines.
Yes, this story needs to be told. And told again. So long as racism festers, burns and kills good black people, we need to hear it. And to do something about it. Attilio Favorini tells it like it is. I wish he could tell it better.
The Gammage Project continues through February 19th at the Henry Haymann Theater, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue, Oakland. And, co-produced by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, resumes March 2,3rd and 4th at August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Avenue, downtown. 412/624-7529. play.pitt.edu and pghplaywrights.com