Theatre Review: ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt’ at Synchronicity

Terry Henry (Mary) and Stephen Ruffin (Curtis) in Synchronicity Theatre's Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project by Lee Nowell. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

Terry Henry (Mary) and Stephen Ruffin (Curtis) in Synchronicity Theatre’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project by Lee Nowell. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Synchronicity Theatre is presenting a compelling drama based on real-life events called “Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project,” written by Lee Nowell and directed by Rachel May, running through May 1.

The playwright notes that the play is based on trial transcripts, legal documents, photographs, letters, interviews, blog posts and published articles about the 2011 execution of the African-American Troy Davis, convicted of killing white police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah 20 years earlier.

Artistic Director May mentions that the current show, a world premiere, was commissioned by Synchronicity almost four years ago, just prior to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other high profile cases. The Troy Davis Case gained world-wide attention; many believed that there was insufficient and tainted evidence; many believed he was guilty. Needless to say, the use of the death penalty was and is supremely controversial.

The play is not a biography; it has several fictitious characters but is based on real events. The two acts are played in alternating order each night: Act I shows evidence pointing to Troy Davis’ guilt, and Act II points to his probable innocence. But the entire play is shown every night.

There is a discussion following each performance, if one wishes to participate.

You may be thinking: This will simply be a dreary polemic, but you are mistaken. Of course the play is polemical, but it is also character driven. This is its special triumph. When you’re dealing with the two most divisive issues in America, race and capital punishment, there will certainly be passionate controversy. But the playwright is wise enough to show us real human beings, so we have real theatre, not just a policy debate.

The audience is not told what to believe; you are free to examine your own convictions, as Ms. May says, “and the very nature of truth.” But can you deal with ambiguity? Tennessee Williams once said, “Truth is at the bottom of a bottomless well.” If you see “Beyond Reasonable Doubt,” you’ll know what he meant.

Two scenes I especially loved: Alison (Lane Carlock) and Bob (Eric Mendenhall) are a couple who have been together for ten years. Alison, a former activist, is stirred from a depression by Lucy (Cynthia D. Barker), an African-American worker for Amnesty International; Lucy wants Alison to sign up and protest Troy Davis’ impending execution. Alison, at first reluctant, agrees and then becomes enthusiastic. Lucy’s persistence has paid off.

Bob, who studied law, is firmly against Alison’s involvement and believes Davis is guilty. “He was convicted; the law must be enforced.” Alison and Bob’s scene is extremely well-written and expertly performed by Ms. Carlock and Mr. Mendenhall.

Another believable and powerful relationship in the play is seen in longtime civil rights activist Mary (Terry Henry) and her grandson Curtis (Stephen Ruffin). Curtis, a Morehouse student, believes racial concerns are a thing of the past. He attended Westminster, an exclusive, liberal (mainly white) prep school and had many white friends. Both Mary and Curtis learn that the world is bigger and more complex than their own personal experiences. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Ms. Henry and Mr. Ruffin are excellent.
As a matter of fact, this is an outstanding cast: John Benzinger, Eddie Bradley, Jr., Danielle Deadwyler (an increasingly powerful and versatile actor), Britny Horton, and Brad Brinkley are all excellent, as are the actors mentioned above.

Set designer Barrett Doyle succeeds brilliantly with a set that is minimalist yet fluid and powerful, with moving panels and backgrounds of documentary film and courtroom transcripts. Here he is aided in projection design by Dale Adams.

Sometimes the re-creation of demonstrations and personal testimonies comes at us a bit fast and furiously, and the audience can feel bombarded. I know I’m being picky here; we’re dealing with a subject that is both tragic and highly emotional. Furthermore, there are no winners in this situation, as one of the characters remarks. But this production is a powerful, significant achievement. Lee Nowell, Rachel May and Synchronicity have created a drama all too relevant for our times, and it will endure.

For tickets and information, visit synchrotheatre.com.

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