Synchronicity Theatre attempts justice to Troy Davis case with Beyond Reasonable Doubt
Atlanta playwright Lee Nowell explains how an obsession with the capital punishment case became a world premiere drama.
Synchronicity Theatre addresses one of the most incendiary legal battles of recent Georgia history with the world premiere of Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project. Directed by Rachel May, the drama revisits the 2011 execution of Troy Davis for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail, interweaving fictional characters with trial transcripts, legal documents, journalism, and interviews. Decatur-based playwright Lee Nowell explains how her four-year obsession with the case contributed to Synchronicity Theatre’s dramatization.
How close attention did you pay to the Troy Davis case when it was going on?
Lee Nowell: I was obsessed with the Troy Davis case when it was happening. It was extremely polarizing, and emotions ran high on all sides. Rallies happened in Atlanta, New York, D.C., Paris, and Morocco. Quite literally millions of people were involved all over the world to try and stop the execution. And yet the prosecution consistently won the case in court. I couldn't figure out how Troy Davis could win in the court of public opinion but lose in the court of law.
Synchronicity Theatre commissioned you to write this. How did you all decide that a stage play was the right approach to this story?
LN: We were interested in telling all sides of the story equally. Plays have a wonderful ability to handle conflicting perspectives without demanding that there be good guys and bad guys. In the theater, we're interested in finding the grey area and really diving into it, questioning what it's about and how it works.
How did you research the case?
LN: I started with 2,000 pages of trial transcripts, then branched out into legal rulings, briefs, and the recantation affidavits. I tracked down people who were involved with the case and interviewed them to find out what they knew that they weren't telling the press. I'd read one piece of source material, and inevitably something in it would contradict something else I'd read. Then I'd look for and inevitably find something that would explain the contradiction — but then I'd stumble onto another piece of information that didn't line up. So basically, I was like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole.
How did you decide the format of the play, which involves fictional characters arguing different implications of the case?
LN: I saw a photograph of one of the Troy Davis rallies, and it was this mass of thousands of people calling to end the execution. On the opposite side of the street there were people calling for the execution. I thought, how I can represent both sides of this argument? The solution was in creating two fictionalized worlds: one of Alison and Bob, and one of Curtis and Mary. Alison ends up on one side of the issue, and Curtis ends up on the other. Their worlds only collide once in the play — at the rally scene towards the end of each act. The play is structured so that the acts are interchangeable: i.e., half of the performances begin with Alison's act, and half begin with Curtis's act. It was the only way to create a truly balanced perspective- show them in different order each night.
I do need to stress that Troy Davis is not a character in the play. Mark McPhail is not a character in the play. This is not a biography, although it contains factual information. A character may be reading a trial transcript to figure something out, and suddenly that transcript section comes to life: one of the lawyers will start interviewing one of the real witnesses. It flips back and forth between the fictitious world and the factual documents they're reading.
Are there special challenges writing about this particular capital punishment case at a time of Black Lives Matter and tensions between the African-American community and the police?
LN: There has always been tension, but I believe that the Troy Davis case galvanized people to start paying attention to the disparities in the justice system and was a catalyst for truthfully examining what's happening. We have to start paying attention. We have to start trying to come up with a solution. So to me, this play is exactly what we need in order to do that because it looks at all sides and doesn't flinch. It asks the audience to consider all perspectives, and hopefully understand what the other side is experiencing in a way they haven't before.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Troy Davis Project. Fri., April 8, running through May 1. Synchronicity Theatre, 1545 Peachtree St., Suite 102. 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 5 p.m. Sun. $15-$45. 404-484-8636. www.synchrotheatre.com.