Everything has changed and nothing has changed since Emily Mann crafted her 1983 docudrama “Execution of Justice.” That historical context proves most thought-provoking in this forthright, vigorous revival in Chicago, helmed by Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”). While the form of the work feels a bit rudimentary and blunt — its mix of humanistic journalism and agit-prop has been copied so often since — there’s no denying how prescient Mann was in diagnosing society’s growing cultural divide, and the impact identity politics could have on the justice system.
Mann’s play chronicled the trial of San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White for the 1978 assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and gay fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk. Using fragments of trial transcripts, combined with interviews of members of the community on both sides of the emerging culture war, the play explores how a clear-cut example of first-degree murder somehow was interpreted by an all-white, law-and-order jury as voluntary manslaughter. The relatively short jail term for White so poorly fitted the crime that riots followed.
It’s impossible, of course, to avoid thinking of the nation’s trials and tribulations since the mid-’80s while watching “Execution of Justice,” in particular the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson cases.
And while representatives of the cultural divide depicted here have a period quality — a policeman (Keith Kupferer) wearing a “Free Dan White” T-shirt and telling lurid tales of what he’s seen policing gay bars; an earnest lesbian activist (Ora Jones); the flamboyant and inflammatory drag queen Sister Boom Boom (La Shawn Banks) — all still feel true to our time, even if their progenitors have become more sophisticated at wielding political rhetoric (as well as in their sense of fashion).
Griffin’s faithful production keeps a period feel to the design, including small TV screens in the background that seem almost quaint in the age of big screens. It incorporates new percussive music by Andy Jones, performed live, that contributes to the driving urgency of the playing and comments ironically on the over-the-top histrionics of the trial.
The only noticeable textual change is the ending. While the original ended with the sounds of the riots, this version ends with the starting of a car, a reference to the fact that White killed himself with carbon monoxide after his early release from prison.
There’s nothing especially imaginative or visually exciting about the staging, but it tells a complex story clearly and efficiently, and it boasts an excellent ensemble. What’s appealing overall about the approach is its faith that the play won’t seem dusty without injecting the contemporary. Griffin allows the work to speak for itself.
Steve Key anchors the ensemble brilliantly as White, a baseball-playing former cop and fireman who was the poster child for the city’s religious conservatives. Key manages to walk the fine line between seeming fully in control of his faculties and yet unhinged, the perfect foil for the psychobabble that permeated the testimony of expert witnesses. His White is richly real — dynamic in flashbacks to his political speeches, seemingly so honest in his taped confession of the crime — and yet ambiguous and mysterious enough to make all interpretations possible.
If Key’s perf brings a central dose of naturalism, Griffin allows others, particularly Sean Fortunato as defense attorney Douglas Schmidt, to comment on their characters, a choice that brings forth the political perspective of the play but perhaps sacrifices convincing insight for entertaining jolts of humor. Nonetheless, Schmidt pulls it off effectively. As the prosecutor, John Judd does a terrific job of seeming both befuddled and arrogant.
The piece does seem plain, and in terms of form it has been surpassed aesthetically many times since its brief Broadway run in 1986. Mann’s play doesn’t use theatrical elements to capture alternative points of view as effectively as, say, Anna Deavere Smith’s work with the Los Angeles or Crown Heights riots, in which Smith carefully and sensitively inhabited her interviewees. Nor is it quite as emotionally searching or visually inventive as one of its most obvious progeny, Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project,” about the killing of Matthew Shepard.
Still, “Execution of Justice” saw something in our culture and in our system of justice so clearly that it remains completely relevant. It’s rare that a play ripped from yesterday’s headlines could feel this enlightening nearly a quarter-century later.