Defamation examines issues of race and class

On Wednesday, Feb. 11, The Pause’s Main Stage hosted Defamation, a traveling show written by Todd Logan. The play dealt with issues such as race, religion, class and gender, all in the form of a courtroom drama with the audience as the jury. The event was sponsored by St. Olaf organizations Cultural Union for Black Expression CUBE and Diversity Celebrations Committee DCC, as well as the Departments of Education, History, Race & Ethnic Studies, Religion, Sociology/Anthropology, Theater and Women & Gender Studies.

The format of the show opted against the standard Law & Order-type court scene in favor of a more realistic approach, opening with two attorneys played by Kimm Beavers and Jonathan Stutzman inaudibly reviewing notes with their respective clients until the judge played by Malcolm Rothman entered to introduce the case. He was wearing a normal suit instead of a judge’s robe, which was mildly distracting, but I digress.

The trial was a civil case where a black woman from a poor background Regina Wade, played by Stacie Doublin was suing a white man born into affluence Arthur Golden, played by director Richard Shavzin for defamation hence the title. She believed the man had spread false information that directly caused the loss of her company’s major client, leading to its bankruptcy.

How well was this case represented? Honestly, for about the first half of the show, audience members easily started to realize why programs like Law & Order put on such theatrics. Initially, the play was like an actual trial. A dry, dry trial. However, the show did pick up, and the context of the case laid out by the dull introduction gave more power to the poignancy of the third act. A highlight of the show was when the defense attorney faced off against the plaintiff in one final testimony.

Another interesting point of the production was the way the casting was intricately crafted to preserve the balance of the story. The plaintiff, a black woman, was represented by a white male attorney, while conversely the white male defendant was represented by a black female lawyer.

“That’s how it would go in the real world,” Shavzin said. “When a black woman sues a Jewish man, she’s going to go out and get herself a Jewish lawyer. And once the defendant looks who’s suing him, he’s going to immediately hire a black woman to defend him.”

In another interesting twist, the only third-party witness was also a black woman, but her interests fell in favor with the defendant. This balance served the production well, as it prevented audience members from disregarding the actions of the play as merely acts of racial and gender favoritism, leaving more room for debate.

Once all testimony had ended, it was time for the jury to make its decision. First, the audience was asked to stand up for the side they were leaning towards immediately after the end of the trial. Around two dozen attendees stood for the plaintiff, four stood for the defendant, and the remaining three dozen remained undecided. This initial poll was followed by a period of deliberation where individuals volunteered to explain why they had favored one party over the other. These explanations varied from dry legal interpretations to impassioned speeches on both sides of the debate. After deliberating, the audience was called to a final vote to decide the ultimate winner of the case. The plaintiff came to a landslide victory as all but three attendees favored her case. This result was not atypical; of the 163 times Defamation has been performed, the defendant has only won 29 times.

The event was not yet finished, however, as the cast members remained on stage for a talk-back session in which they discussed the play’s themes with the audience, as well their experiences touring the show around the country. Beavers and Shavzin answered the majority of the audience’s questions. Beavers talked extensively about how aspects of various characters affected the audience’s perception of the case, while Shavzin was focused on the effect the demographics of the audience had on the outcome of the trial. He claimed that the only demographic that consistently sided with the defendant was Catholic high-schoolers. Not Catholics of all ages, mind you, only Catholic high-schoolers. On the opposite side, shows at Jewish Centers always gave the plaintiff a landslide victory.

Beavers also shared why she initially hesitated to join the cast: “At first, I was concerned about the scene where my character intensely grills the plaintiff because I was worried it might perpetuate the stereotype that black women don’t get along, and I abhor that stereotype.”

Eventually, the discussion ended and the audience returned home while the cast and crew packed up to continue their 2015 tour, which will take them across Minnesota, St. Louis, California and New Orleans. Overall, after a slow start, Defamation was a powerful and fresh approach to the discussion its sensitive, but important topics.