5 Things the OJ Trial Can Teach Playwrights

by Kitty Felde

It’s anniversary time. NPR called last week, wanting me to reminisce about covering the “Trial of the Century” – the murder trial of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. I spend nine long months trapped in that 9th floor courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. I rarely think about it anymore. I even gave away all of my OJ memorabilia and cartoons and press passes to the Newseum.

But as I put together my notes for the interview, I started thinking about the trial as theatre. Which led me to think of theatrical lessons for playwrights from the entire experience.

So here goes:

1) The Power of Raw Emotion

The strongest memory I have from sitting in that courtroom all those months was the pure rage and anger of Fred Goldman. Hate and fury radiated from the grieving father of the murdered waiter Ron Goldman. He wanted more than justice. He wanted an eye for an eye. I have thought about him over the past two decades. I’ve actually prayed for him – not that he can ever find forgiveness, but some peace.

How often do we dare to put that raw emotion on stage? It’s not polite, it makes an audience uncomfortable, but it gets to the heart of what makes us human beings.

Shakespeare did it often. I’ll always remember Kevin Kline’s performance in “Henry V” in Central Park, interrupted several times by thunderstorms. And then during the St. Crispin speech, he just raged at the heavens as water poured down, lightening turning the night bright as day. He was as electric as the storm: pure, raw emotion on stage.

2) Structure Your Plot

The prosecution got off on the wrong foot in the Simpson case when it failed to share information with the defense about its domestic violence evidence. Judge Lance Ito punished the district attorneys’ office by requiring attorneys to hold off on presenting that evidence until the end of the trial. That meant the prosecution’s motive for the killing was missing until so late in the trial that the jurors didn’t care.

I saw a production recently that was structured very much like the Simpson trial. The action exploded at the very end of the play with no denouement. As an audience member, I felt cheated and angry.

It’s our job as playwrights to create characters that give an audience a reason to love or hate, lead them along with the promise that their time will not be wasted, and deliver on that promise.

3) Shiny, Pretty Things

I argued against covering the trial to my then-boss. “It’s all about celebrity!” I told her. She argued that the Simpson trial was about race and domestic violence. But if that’s what she wanted to cover, I told her, there were a hundred other cases in that same criminal courts building that were much more about those two topics. I lost that argument.

That trial was – I think – the beginning of our modern-day celebrity culture. In fact, the lead KCBS reporter on the trial Harvey Levin went on to launch TMZ, an entire empire of celebrity reporting. It’s a shiny, pretty thing we can’t take our eyes off of. And we can’t ignore it as playwrights.

I’m still a grump about my plays. I write about “serious” topics like war crimes and urban unrest and racial stereotypes. But for a theatre to sell tickets to any of these plays, they also need their own shiny, pretty things. It’s what gets an audience through the door.

It could be turning the set into a giant wrestling ring like “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” by Kristoffer Diaz. Or building a play around the creation of a beloved cartoon hero in Natsu Onoda Power’s “Astro Boy and the God of Comics.”

A really good title can qualify. Like “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia, Formerly Known As South West Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884-1915 “by Jackie Sibblies Drury. I love that title. I wish I’d thought of it. And I love “Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare and “Playboy of the Western World” by JM Synge.

My own best title came from an artistic director who warned me he couldn’t sell tickets to the play “Erdemovic.” “Nobody buys tickets to a play they can’t pronounce.” He renamed it after a line in my play about how much blood a patch of earth can absorb. “A Patch of Earth” has been performed around the world and has been published in a collection with a pretty good title of its own: “The Theatre of Genocide.”

4) Wardrobe

I wonder how many great suits Johnnie Cochran owned. Every day, he’d come to court in a different, fabulously tailored suit and memorable tie. Cochran’s wardrobe screamed self-confidence. No one in that courtroom could compete. Except maybe the jury, which would wear black or some other color to illustrate its mood. They even wore California Pizza Kitchen tee shirts one day.

It’s helpful to me as a playwright to find the one item of wardrobe that defines a character. Mike Marcott, ex-cop-turned politician, wears nothing but starched, white shirts to project that Marcott the Hero image, masking the darker side underneath. Betsy’s mother Babs first appears in her Code Pink tee shirt, leaving the audience no doubt about her political persuasion and activism. They say on a job interview, you have on opportunity to make a first impression. The same is true for our characters.

5) It’s Still A Boys Club

I spent part of my day in the courtroom, the other part writing scripts in the 12th floor media room. Radio reporters were tucked away in the corner in tiny three foot by four foot cubicles. I was one of the only radio “girls.” My gender normally didn’t matter. Until the day one of my compadres posted pictures from one of the tabloids of prosecutor Marcia Clark’s topless beach outing. It was annoying and insulting and the guys didn’t understand why. Finally, only the words “sexual harassment” were enough to have the offensive picture taken down.

It’s still a boys club in theatre. The annual number of plays produced by male and female writers remind us of that fact. It’s annoying and insulting. And on days when I look at Tony nominations or look at a season ticket brochure for a local theatre, it’s maddening. We do our own agitating – creating the Lily Awards and the LAFPI and see some progress some years in the numbers. But on those days when I open the rejection email, I find it helpful to remind myself: it’s not your talent. The things you find important to write about are not necessarily the things a person of another gender thinks are important.

If the play don’t fit, you must acquit … the guys making the decisions. At least until the retrial.

2 Comments

  • By Nancy Beverly, June 16, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    Loved this, great insights and parallels!

  • By Diane Grant, June 20, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

    Kitty,

    This is superb. I love the connections you make. The trial was theater and I remember walking about town and hearing it from every window and car radio.

    Did you see Barry Scheck’s article about it in the L.A. Times, which talked about other things, about the effect that televising the trial had?

    Thanks for an excellent article.

    Diane

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