Finding O.J. - Through the Eyes of a Black Teen in L.A.

 

Returning to the scene - exactly 20 years to the day after the verdict in the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson - is bound to dredge up passionate discussions on race. Playwright David McMillan believes” that is just what needs to be happening. It’s a verdict that rocked the world, and 90 per cent of television viewers in this country were tuned into the news during the time of the announcement that day. Edged out by only a few other events in America’s history up until then, like Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, this event impacted the way we perceived our justice system.  It got us all talking about how we were doing on improving, or not, race relations in this country.“ 

 

McMillan’s world premiere of WATCHING O.J. opens on October 3, 2015 at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA and takes us into a local community amidst a wide cross-section of L.A.’s diverse population, as the play’s characters patronize their neighborhood businesses and go about their normal routines. They have lived near, and socialized with, each other for years; but, on that day, they come to find out just how little they really know about each other.  

 

 

A native Angeleno, David McMillan writes for theater, television, and screen. He has received several awards for his work, including USC’s top prize for screenwriting. He brings a unique perspective to the unfolding of events during the O.J. trial. After all, he witnessed the famous car chase, scrutinized videos of every trial day, and had close friendships with both black and white contemporaries in the very areas where O.J. lived and worked. 

 

What first got you interested in this project?   

 

MCMILLAN: As a black teen growing up in L.A., I was fascinated by how people were watching the trial. Specifically, how whites and blacks (and everyone else) were viewing the trial through their own distinct racial, cultural, and historical lens. I remember exactly where I was when the verdict was read. I was in school in the middle of French class. I went to school in Santa Monica, and I had classmates who lived in Brentwood, where the crime happened. I was close to everything that occurred, and I later thought back to people’s opinions once the verdict was read. I remember all the whites were really angry - and the blacks were happy. I was caught in the middle. I grew up in Inglewood, and my mom videotaped every day of the trial, so I knew everything about the trial. That was when I was fascinated by what the trial brought out in people. How people saw each event in their own perspective while they were looking at the legal system and the concept of justice. Years later, I wanted to address these issues in a creative form. Wouldn’t it be a telling subject for a play? I’d worked on some plays in high school and college, but I hadn’t written any for a while. So I started developing the play in late 2011 with EST/LA playwriters unit. It’s been a wonderful experience. 

 

What were you doing during the famous car chase? 

 

MCMILLAN: I remember it vividly. I was still in Inglewood when it was happening...we were some of the people who went outside. I was near the freeway and saw O.J. and the police trailing him...it was surreal. Some people were cheering, and some just came to see the spectacle. It was a crazy thing, to see it play out so closely. That was the beginning of my focus on the trial. 

 

What is the most important message that you see this play offering? 

 

MCMILLAN: There are a lot of answers to that question. Part of the play tries to address them, but not with definitive answers. The O.J. case was larger than itself. In the legal aspects, there was nothing so complicated. What made the difference was the combination of celebrities, race, and class...and the people involved. They were larger than life, especially Johnnie Cochran. The trial caused a fear of sorts. The verdict was a kind of Rorschach test of where people saw racial progress in America. If you thought he was innocent, you lived in a different part of the world. Many African Americans knew first-hand the injustice of the justice system. African Americans believed he could be framed; and evidence, tampered with. We live in two worlds. There was the black version of the trial and the white version of the trial. It’s like today in Ferguson or with Trayvon Martin, or even Obamacare. These things created conversation around race and racial progress, how people see where we are now. 

 

I’m cautious about describing a message, though. I think the writer must write something telling and engaging for drama so that people don’t feel ripped off when they pay for a ticket. People enjoy the play. It has amazing actors and a great director. The play brought up questions for me; and, hopefully, people will take those questions with them when they leave. I want to prompt people to have conversations with people not of the same race. I hope the play generates thoughtful conversation and re-evaluation. Every time we stop and think about who we are, that helps us move forward. The spirit of the play is what’s important. I’m not trying to force people to change their opinions. And I don’t think of it as a black play. Collaboration and production have mostly been using the generational approach. I think we made an effort to make the play feel as inclusive as the city of Los Angeles. 

 

Do you think justice was served? 

 

MCMILLAN: I think I’ll refrain from answering that question. Do I think justice was done according to the way we define it? There was no corruption in how the verdict was rendered. What O.J. did was shine a light on things. Another forgotten aspect was social class. O.J. had a whole host of important people defending him; it was really the dream team. Class played a big part, because O.J. had the money to do that. In terms of the trial being properly conducted? Yes, the verdict was legally bound. But it was a very complicated case. I think the case opened people’s eyes in a big way about police conduct. It was only a few years after the L.A. riots followed the Rodney King verdict. That was a situation where police conduct was brought to the fore. O.J. brought attention to the justice system and the pervasive racism in the police department. I think Mark Furman was the turning point in the case. He showed a whole lot of racist tendencies. The nature of police work confirmed what some people already knew or felt. The verdict had a huge impact on race. Even now, people have a strong emotional reaction. It’s hard to say there was a direct consequence. In an odd way, it made people more open to talk about it. I wonder if there would have been a black President without that case. Sometimes things make us grow and be more open. 

 

What are your plans, after WATCHING OJ? 

 

MCMILLAN: I am gratefully and thankfully employed, writing for a TV series called “Lucifer,” which premieres in January on Fox. And I’m writing a pilot for NBC at the same time. 

 

 

The cast of WATCHING O.J. includesAngela Bullock, Kareem Ferguson, Robert Gossett, Tony Pasqualini, Lisa Renee Pitts, Tarah Pollock, Eve Sigall, Roy Vongtama, and Kelly Wolf. 

 

Watching O.J. opens on Saturday, October 3, 2015 and runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through November 8, 2015.  Post-show talkbacks are scheduled throughout the run with special guests, such as the lead attorney from the Cochran law firm. Ensemble Studio Theatre/LAis located in the Atwater Village Theatre Complex 3269 Casitas Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets are $19.95. For ticket purchase, call 818-858-0440 or go online   

 

 

 

 

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