Are We All Racists?
Defamation is a courtroom drama that forces audiences to choose sides in racially charged drama. How did Milwaukee vote?
Defamation is not your usual sort of theatrical production: the courtroom drama uses audience participation to educate people about the judicial system, racial issues and yes, our own biases. The nationally touring show was performed Tuesday at the UW-Milwaukee Union Ballroom.
Imagine that an African-American graphic designer from the South Side, Regina Wade visits the home of a prestigious Jewish businessman in the North Shore, Mr. Golden, who considers hiring her. Now imagine that Mr. Golden accuses her of taking his watch, and advises another firm not to do business with her. You must decide whether he’s guilty of making a false accusation, costing Ms. Wade thousands in her salary.
Defamation is an emotionally charged courtroom drama, examining gender, race, religion, and class issues. The audience must judge whether Mr. Golden is guilty of defamation or not. The play, written by Todd Logan, was premiered in 2010 at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL, and a skilled troupe of actors has been touring the play, performing it more 125 times throughout Greater Chicagoland and in Nashville, TN, Jackson, MS, Cleveland, OH, and Worcester, MA.
“No matter how much we achieve, some still think the worst of us because of our skin,” she says. “Wherever I go, I’m seen as a black woman first and a human second.”
Mr. Golden’s lawyer, Miss Allen (Kimm Beavers), an African-American seems to empathize with Wade, but then suggests she stole Golden’s watch because she was bitter about having to take a 2 1/2 hour bus ride, getting stopped by the cop, and Mr. Golden not offering her a ride.
“The world’s an unfair place for you and me, Ms. Wade” says Miss Allen at the end. “That doesn’t give you a license to take his watch and sue him to put your life back together.”
Ms. Wade’s fast-talking, intimidating lawyer, Mr. Lawton, asks Mr. Golden questions relating to his views on race. Golden unwillingly admits he doesn’t want his daughter marrying a non-Jewish man, and that his family left his birthplace when whites began moving out. Lawton suggests Golden is racist, and that it’s possible the watch is just lost.
In the post-trial discussion, 74 audience members voted undecided, 13 voted for Ms. Wade, and 40 voted for Mr. Golden. Many audience members admitted their opinion changed throughout the twists and turns of the story. Some said the case did not have enough facts. After the discussion, the play’s director announced that everyone must vote again, this time without the “undecided” option, and the plaintiff lost again.
“I’m a black woman from Wauwatosa and I’ve been asked if I’m lost there,” laughed Mickey Murry of UWM Sociocultural Programming. “But I also asked myself ‘am I voting for this woman because I feel for her or do I truly believe she’s not guilty?’.”
Another audience member, a former Milwaukee Public Schools teacher, also sympathized with Miss Wade. She said the play has made her question her own biases, and helped her realize those in power who make the laws may be biased.
“As a white woman working in a black neighborhood, I was often asked if I was lost,” she said. “Emotionally, I’d vote for Wade, but I’m not sure if that’s right.”
Solana Patterson Ramos, a UWM student said that she voted in favor of Ms. Wade. She didn’t feel there was enough evidence to prove the watch was stolen, and she thought her lawyer did a great job of exposing Mr. Golden’s internalized prejudices. “He shouldn’t have told someone else to avoid doing business with her without having proof that she took her watch,” the student said.
Many people could relate to the stereotypes in the play and some questioned them. “I’m not trying to micro-aggress, but I think this play brings out the stereotype that black women don’t get along,” said an audience member.
Beavers gave the audience kudos for being able to discuss the issue. “I felt this play perpetuates that stereotype too,” she said. “But as an actor, I did a character analysis so I come across the right way. Miss Allen is a high- powered attorney hired by a millionaire. She was just doing her job. It’s nothing personal, plus I love Stacie,” she laughed.
Logan said the company has noticed the differences in who “wins” the trial based on demographics. He said Ms. Wade has won overwhelmingly in synagogues and Mr. Golden has more often in Catholic schools. Milwaukee went with the Catholics, it seems
Warren Sheerer, of the UWM Inclusive Excellence Center, learned about this troupe through the NASPA Multicultural Institute in December 2013. He and UWM’s Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs believed the play would help students learn about our judicial system while also helping them realize how stereotypes influence people’s decisions.
The troupe is taking a Midwest tour this October and going in different parts of the county in November. Visit defamationtheplay.com to watch the trailer, read reviews and learn more information.