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THE TRIAL OF TRAYVON MARTIN brings a great cast to Subversive’s mission

THE BASICS:  THE TRIAL OF TRAYVON MARTIN, a new drama by Buffalo’s Gary Earl Ross, directed by Subversive Theatre founder Kurt Schneiderman, stars Shawnell Tillery for the defense, Brian Brown as defendant Trayvon Martin, Rick Lattimer as George Zimmerman, Kunji Rey for the prosecution, along with Lawrence Rowswell, Leon Copeland, Brittany Bassett, Kajana Stover, and Michael Mottern. It runs through Saturday, May 6th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. at the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Avenue on the third floor. Run time: over 90 minutes with one 10-minute intermission. (408-0499).

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  THE TRIAL OF TRAYVON MARTIN asks the question “What if Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old hoodie-wearing black teenager had been on trial for killing George Zimmerman, instead of the other way around? Would Martin have been acquitted at trial as was Zimmerman in real life?” (Note: Zimmerman’s acquittal was the “straw” that launched the Black Lives Matter movement.) This police procedural / courtroom drama begins on the rainy night of February 26, 2012, in a gated community in Florida, where Trayvon Martin (who has been visiting his father) is returning from a trip to a convenience store with a can of soda pop and a bag of Skittles candy. Aggressively confronted by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, Martin punches Zimmerman and the two struggle over Zimmerman’s gun, which goes off, killing Zimmerman. Martin runs to his father’s house, but soon the police arrive and arrest him. The play continues from there.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The set with (blood?) spattered translucent screens (Chris Wilson), the confusing sound of rain and 911 tapes (John Shotwell) and the dramatic back lighting (Hasheen DeBerry), masterfully combine to create a dystopian, unsettling milieu. It was very effective, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and greatly increased the “scope” of the rather modest stage. And, throughout the evening, we continued to see shapes, sometimes menacing, through that spattered plexiglass, which added to that feeling of unease. The action unfolds four parts: the incident and early investigation, the pre-trial activities of both attorneys, the trial itself, and then a somewhat operatic (in the best way) closing arguments duet between opposing counsel.

You don’t need to know Florida statutes to follow the action, but it might help to know that under Florida’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law, the use of deadly force against an attacker (without first attempting to retreat) is permissible if a person reasonably believes he must use deadly force to prevent serious injury. A defendant (in this play Trayvon Martin) in a homicide case who claims to have acted in self-defense may petition the court to grant the defendant immunity from prosecution. The burden of proof in a pretrial immunity hearing is on the defendant (Trayvon Martin) and it is only to show “a preponderance of the evidence” that he acted lawfully.

Immunity from prosecution would be good for young Trayvon, however….

if you know the work of Gary Earl Ross (playwright) and know about Kurt Schneiderman (the director) “…proud to devote all of his artistic endeavors to material that – hopefully – inspires people to act out against the injustices all around us….”

you can assume that this will not work out well.

What does work out well, though, is the quality of the acting.  Everyone deserved the powerful applause they received. In order of appearance, Rick Lattimer as George Zimmerman presented a very believable, very wound-up-tight guy and he stayed in character right up until the very end. Young Brian Brown as Trayvon really is developing into a fine actor and showed great range as a teenager in a tough situation. Lawrence Rowswell as the tired detective Hooks who’s seen it all and probably wishes he hadn’t is a Buffalo treasure. Michael Mottern takes on the thankless role of beat officer and court bailiff.

Casting Directors: Get these two women, Rey and Tillery, back on stage soon!

Kunji Rey was a wonderful casting choice as prosecutor and she had that smarmy snakelike charm that makes our blood boil. Ooooooh.  She was good. And, going toe-to-toe, brow-to-brow with her was Shawnell Tillery as Imani Fairchild for the defense. Casting Directors: Get these two women, Rey and Tillery, back on stage soon!

[Casting Directors: Get these two women, Rey and Tillery, back on stage soon!]

Although I thought that veteran Buffalo actor Leon Copeland was a little old to be Trayvon’s dad, still, with this powerful cast, the role had to be handled by someone who could bring some gravitas, and Copeland is just so damn interesting to watch.

Last but not least were the two younger women involved with the principals. Brittany Noel Bassett as Mrs. Zimmerman, just like Brian Brown as Trayvon, had to run a gamut of emotions. It’s a nuanced character and she gave a nuanced performance. And for realism, there was no need for suspension of disbelief when Kajana Stover was on stage as Rachel, Trayvon’s girlfriend. 100% believable.

The night we went the house was full, even with extra chairs, and the audience, at times vocal in their reactions to what was happening, was obviously getting their money’s worth.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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