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How do you get the members of an audience to challenge their preconceived notions about race, class, religion, gender and even the law? You make them the jury in Defamation, a riveting one-act courtroom drama about an African-American professional woman who sues a successful Jewish real estate developer.
"Whether we like it or not, we still have major divides in this country," said playwright Todd Logan. "Most of us still go to bed at night in cities, communities and neighborhoods that are segregated by race, religion, ethnicity and/or class."
Logan wrote Defamation, a brief, intense theatrical experience that has captivated audiences around the country, as a platform for the kind of civil discourse that leads to greater understanding and empathy, and as a result, greater tolerance. It is ideally suited to college and high school audiences due to the level of engagement in elicits, the efficient 1 ½ hour time frame, and the clean, stripped-down nature of the set. All the performers require is a simple stage, two desks and a few chairs. The Defamation website, www.defamationtheplay.com, also provides an extensive study guide.
In a trial without a smoking gun, Defamation presents a civil defamation case. Regina Wade, owner of a small design firm on Chicago's south side, sues Arthur Golden, a high-powered businessman from the wealthy and white community of Winnetka on Chicago's north shore. Wade claims Golden ruined her reputation and her business by accusing her of stealing his heirloom watch during the course of a business meeting.
This case is not a simple "he said, she said." There are twists and turns that keep the audience on its toes. In the course of presenting their arguments, attorneys elicit testimony about segregated neighborhoods and country club memberships, the Holocaust, racial discrimination, and the hardships of class. Described is Ms. Wade's life-long experience getting "the look" from others due to her skin color. As Diana Ladd of the Jackson Free Press wrote, "The play has all sorts of circular prejudice messages wound up in it and some powerful lessons about ingrained racism most of us never see, especially if we're white and part of the majority culture."
After each side rests its case, the judge instructs audience members that they are to adjudicate the matter and deliver a verdict following open deliberations. Before deliberations begin, the judge polls those in the audience for their initial findings by offering them three choices: 1) to declare in favor the plaintiff (Miss Wade); 2) to declare in favor of the defendant (Mr. Golden); or 3) to claim undecided. The judge then leads the audience in a 15-20 minute deliberation.
Deliberations are intense and revealing. In discussing the facts of the case and the guilt or innocence of each party, audience members inevitably uncover their own and others' biases that inform their day-to-day lives. Erika Harris of "Mindful Metropolis" reflected, "I left the theater with my notions shaken and twisted. [Defamation] gives you a view of two very different worlds and then enlists you to take a stand - right then and there as the jury! We need the frank conversations this play fearlessly ignites."
The courtroom drama and jury deliberations are followed by a post-show discussion in which the conversation grows even richer and often elicits emotional personal stories from audience members. Undergraduate and post-graduate audiences have been among those riveted by the play's ability to draw students out of conventionally held perceptions.
Susan Connor, Professor of Law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago said, "The discussion with the actors following the play is integral to the production and brilliantly enhanced the experience." Recently, at Chicago-based North Park University, students from several different minority groups shared their painful experiences getting "the look" that comes from being apart from the majority.
The play was also very well received at the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "Defamation is a well-constructed, well-acted drama that makes students think carefully about the intersections of sex, race, and class," said Julia Fesmire Senior Lecturer, Women's and Gender Studies at Vanderbilt.
Defamation - History
Defamation has received much acclaim since premiering in 2010 and has played to more than 100 audiences in the cities of Chicago, Boston, Nashville and Jackson, and their environs. It has been performed for universities, law schools, high schools, civic and religious organizations and businesses. Word of mouth about the play's power to ignite dialogue has generated requests for performances around the country. Defamation has become known as the play that starts conversations.
Defamation can be performed before any size audience and in any venue. The set up is low tech: two tables, six chairs and no special lighting (just like a courtroom).
The play can be performed mornings, afternoons and/or evenings. Pricing is determined by organization(s), location and number of shows. Partnerships among organizations to present Defamation are welcome.