Members of the audience are transformed into jurors in Jewish playwright Todd Logan's crime drama Defamation
on tour this fall. As Judge Adrian Barnes introduces himself and the show, audience members learn that they will decide the verdict of the case being presented.
The plantiff, Regina Wade, an African American resident of Bronzeville in Chicago, is suing Arthur Golden, a wealthy, Jewish lawyer residing in Winnetka, for defamation. Wade suffers the loss of her business following an incident where Golden claimed that she stole a family heirloom, his grandfather's wrist watch. Wade must prove to the audience that Golden committed an act of defamation. In order to do so, she must prove that he not only made a false statement to a third party, but ultimately directly caused her financial damage directly as a result of his false statement.
As the story unfolds and the prosecution and defense battle out the case, themes and notions of race, class, religion, law, prejudice, and gender are brought to fruition, often provoking some strong feelings, opinions, and new perspectives that are shared by members of the audience.
"This is a platform for a different conversation in a civil form," Logan said. Many of the conversations prompted by this performance, he said, relate to inherent divides that we have in our society, divides that people have trouble discussing. He believes that these conversations generate empathy, as participants hear different perspectives, all which the characters believe to be the truth from their perspective.
Since its premiere in 2010, Defamation has toured the Chicago area and other regions of the country, performing at synagogues, churches, high schools, colleges campuses, law schools, theaters, and more. Out of the 77 times that the show has run, Golden has only won a mere 10 times and only once has he won in a setting with a substantial population of Jews.
Logan didn't necessarily expect this when he began touring. Rather than choosing a side, his wish is that audiences use critical thinking rather than emotion and examine things through a new lens rather than through their own bias. One particular conflict touched upon in this show is intermarriage and the debate of if wanting to marry someone from your own race or religion demonstrates prejudice or simply faith to the community that you came from.
Logan, who had personal experience with intermarriage, wanted to demonstrate what faith means to people in our society. The show certainly expounds upon faith, creatively through an interactive experience that was new to many audience members, yielding a new set of responsibilities.
"I found it to be a large responsibility and a lot of pressure," said Sandi Gordon, who attended the play Chicago Sinai Congregation in Chicago in October. "I [didn't] want to accuse either [person] wrongly."
Still, she truly enjoyed her experience, as do the actors who are a part of this interactive experience. "It is very enlightening," said Kimm Beavers, who plays Golden's lawyer, Ms. Allen. "It is a very effective experience to be a part of the conversations and dialogue in this process."
Richard Shavzin, who plays Golden, holds a creative partnership with Logan as the director of this production. Shavzin describes the show as an educational tool that provokes conversation. Although he doesn't always like the conversation, he said that this is the point of the show.
"It's been a great experience," Shavzin said. "If we can get people to share opinions with each other and if one or two people consider something that they haven't before or in a different way that's great."
One perspective that Shavzin offered was his disappointment in the lack of a Black-Jewish coalition in society today. He senses that this is something that has been going downhill for the past 20 years and, in fact, should be a natural coalition based on the backgrounds of these communities.
Logan hopes that Defamation continues to be seen by as many people as possible. He wants the production to travel more to a wide range of venues and even hopes that it can be used as an educational DVD someday in high schools.
Not sure what your personal verdict would be? Decide for yourself at upcoming shows in the Chicago area.For more information, visit www.defamationtheplay.com.
Lauren Schmidt, originally from Chicago, is a recent graduate of the George Washington University. She is currently working for the Simon Wiesenthal Center's new Midwest office in Chicago and is a contributor to Oy! Chicago.