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'Trial of Trayvon Martin' takes aim at justice system

Trayvon Martin committed no crime, but he has already been on trial twice.

The first trial unfolded in the mind of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed judge and jury who pursued and confronted the unarmed black teenager as he walked along a dark Florida street in February, 2011.

The second trial, in the ruthless court of public opinion, began the moment Martin died in a struggle over Zimmerman's gun. In that trial, cable news pundits and talk radio hosts presiding, Martin changed from the innocent, Skittle-eating teenager he was into a dangerous thug consumed with violent rage.

Now, Martin is on trial again, this time in a friendlier context: Gary Earl Ross' fine new play "The Trial of Trayvon Martin," running through May 6 in the Manny Fried Playhouse, a shoebox of a theater space on the fourth floor of the Great Arrow Building.

The setting may be friendlier and the playwright sympathetic to the plight of Martin and his family, but it should surprise no one familiar with the American justice system that the outcome is devastating.

In his well-designed conceit, which lays bare the racial biases of the Florida courts, Ross has left all the details of that dark February night intact save for one important detail: In the struggle over Zimmerman's gun, Martin walked away and Zimmerman caught a lethal bullet.

Ross wants to know: In this entirely feasible situation, how would a 17-year-old black male come out? Or, to paraphrase Ross, does Florida's "stand-your-ground" law only applied to scared white people?

In his smart script, which plays out like an extended episode of "Law & Order" in a swift production directed by Kurt Schneiderman, Ross reveals an intricate knowledge of the criminal justice system in Florida. (It helps that his son is a Florida police officer, but Ross has obviously done his own research.)

New play flips tragedy of Trayvon Martin on its head

He has funneled his own outrage into the character of Imani Fairchild (Shawnell Tillery), a hard-charging defense lawyer intent on pulling some shred of justice from an already tattered situation.

The play opens with Zimmerman's 911 call and a subsequent reenactment of that February night, staged on Chris Wilson's set of translucent screens flecked with what might be specks of blood.

Brian Brown plays Martin as he ways: a teenager perched on the awkward border between timid adolescence and confident adulthood. Rick Lattimer's Zimmerman, on the other hand, is a ball of vibrating rage and insecurity clearly seeking an outlet for his violent impulses.

For those interested in legal maneuvering, and especially how the deck is often stacked against young black men, the rest of the play will unfold with the pace of Scott Turow novel. The not so nerdy among us may have less patience for the legalese Ross employs, but he weaves through plenty of emotion in the form of Fairchild's passionate asides and the musings of an unusually deliberative police detective played by Lawrence Roswell.

The acting in this production is uneven, and there are many moments in the play when Ross too obviously uses his characters -- Fairchild especially -- as an opportunity to speechify. Some of the court-room exchanges, especially Fairchild's extended explanations for her objections to the prosecutor's line of questioning or Roswell's explications of criminal law, are overwritten.

But for each those overdone moments, Ross incluses is a striking vignette that explores the relationship between Martin and his father, or between Zimmerman and his wife (Brittany Bassett). And Schneiderman, in concert with lighting designer Hasheen DeBerry, gives those vignettes plenty of dramatic impact.

For anyone interested in the genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, the challenges of administering justice in America or even just a smart police procedural, Ross' "Trial of Trayvon Martin" is worth a look.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

Theater Review

3 stars (out of four)

"The Trial of Trayvon Martin," a new drama by Gary Earl Ross, runs through May 6 in the Manny Fried Playhouse (255 Great Arrow Ave.). Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 408-0499 or visit subversivetheatre.org.

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