KPBS AIRDATE: March 6, 1996
There’s a crisis in our courts. And there’s nothing the theater loves more than crisis and courtrooms. Or, in the case of “Voir Dire,” crisis in jury-rooms.
Written in 1992, Joe Sutton’s play takes on all sorts of heightened meaning in the wake of the Rodney King, Marion Barry and O.J. Simpson trials. The guilt or innocence of one African American high school principal, accused of purchase and possession of crack-cocaine, isn’t all that’s under discussion here. It’s the whole fabric of a society that reeks of sexism and racism. The six jurors in this room, five women and one pseudo-sensitive man, include an African American, a Middle American, a corporate conservative, a liberal white with a black boyfriend, and one taciturn Latina.
That neatly allows for a microcosmic representation of modern-day America, or so Sutton says. What goes on during these deliberations quite accurately represents a real jury’s conflicts of personality and philosophy. Trouble is, it so accurately represents the situation that we feel as though we’re watching it in real time.
The characters, while a bit overdrawn, have justifiable and believable viewpoints. They just keep expressing them repeatedly for two hours. There is inter-personal conflict, but no real dramatic conflict. And without a dramatic arc or progression, without any significant intrigue or suspense about the verdict, we are left with a half-dozen one-note tunes, less dramatic than dialectic.
Valid and provocative questions are raised, but though they are intellectually challenging, they aren’t emotionally engaging.
Should group loyalty triumph over morality? Would a sole male jurist try to bully his female counterparts? Would white police officers plant drugs on a black man in a bad neighborhood, even if he were an upstanding and respected member of society? Should an African American woman contribute to the incarceration of yet one more African American male? Should this play have to take so long to get where it’s going?
These are the questions that plague you throughout “Voir Dire,” a French term which, by the way, means, not literally, “to speak truly,” referring to the process of jury selection.
Some of the actors speak more truly than others. Robin Pearson Rose, for example, plays a less-than-credible businesswoman talking less-than credible New Yorkese. But Kimberly Scott, Anne O’Sullivan, Bill Geisslinger and Andee Mason face off squarely and effectively. Yolanda Lloyd Delgado’s character adds too little, too late.
The set of Robin Sanford Roberts is very true to its source. Director Craig Noel tries to wring emotion from the polemic. But ultimately, the program notes are as interesting as the play, and easily as provocative.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.