Recalling Jonny Gammage: Play dramatizes racially charged case
Ian Pisarcik as Officer John Vojtas and Corey Talley as Jonny Gammage rehearse the apprehension and fight scene.
Director Mark Southers, left, and playwright Attilio "Buck" Favorini.
Laci Mosely, portraying Narves Gammage, mother of Jonny Gammage, makes an emotional statement with Brett Caffiers, left, as Ray Seals in "The Gammage Project."
Corey Tally as Jonny Gammage.
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Mark Clayton Southers has been working on "The Gammage Project" for two years and directing the play through rehearsals as it readies for a Thursday opening. There was a moment when he let his actors do some freestyle acting, just to have a little fun, before getting back to the play.
"That's going to be the most fun we have," he said. "It's a real tough piece. I found myself almost tearing up over dialogue I've heard eight, 10 times when the actress delivered it [in rehearsal]. It was heart-wrenching, because you never know when something like this can happen to a family member."
Painful memories of Jonny Gammage's death echoed through time when Jordan Miles was beaten by police two years ago, a case that became a renewed call to action for Attilio "Buck" Favorini. The playwright teamed with Mr. Southers -- a marriage of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory company and Pittsburgh Playwrights -- to create what is billed as a "docu-drama" of the events of 16 years ago.
Mr. Gammage, the 31-year-old cousin of former Steeler Ray Seals, died during a traffic stop in a confrontation with five police officers on Oct. 12, 1995. Mr. Miles, then a senior at Pittsburgh CAPA, was stopped in his Homewood neighborhood on Jan. 12, 2010, and ended up badly beaten by several officers. In both cases, the injured party was black, the officers were white.
Mr. Miles' physical wounds have healed, but outrage over his ordeal and the Gammage tragedy remains.
"I wanted to write a play about the Jonny Gammage incident ever since it happened," said Mr. Favorini, founding chair of Pitt's Department of Theatre Arts. "The immediate trigger for saying 'now's the time to write it' is because there are some eerie parallels between the two cases."
He invited Mr. Southers, the driving force behind Pittsburgh Playwrights company and theater at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, to co-write and direct a play based on all of the facts they could muster. Both finding the facts and re-creating it as a play proved difficult, and eventually took a toll on Mr. Southers, a former Pittsburgh Courier photographer and steelworker who lives in the Hill District. He found the writing "emotionally draining" and eventually pulled out of the writing process.
"It was difficult because I'm a Pittsburgher, and I wanted to compartmentalize the way I dealt with the Gammage issue. ... Just as a writer, I started writing like at 3 in the morning. I approached it like this nightmare, and I'd go back to sleep at 5. So I'm directing it. It's working out better this way."
Mr. Favorini continued writing a play that is bolstered by images projected on a big screen, and has been cast with a combined student and professional company. "The Gammage Project" runs through Feb. 19 at the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland, and moves to the August Wilson Center, Downtown, March 2-4.
Working on the show has been a learning experience for students who were not in Pittsburgh or old enough to remember accounts of Jonny Gammage's death, the trials of three of the officers -- two ending in mistrials; one in an acquittal -- and the community's outrage.
The recent Jordan Miles case gives them a perspective in that "it mirrors the situation, the energy that's going on in the city," Mr. Southers said.
The journey to the stage proved arduous as documents from the trials of the officers and the coroner's inquest proved difficult to acquire, Mr. Favorini said.
"The issue is, there is no publicly accessible reference for all of these documents. I tracked down the original court reporters and the university purchased the trial transcripts from them. And then when it came to the medical examiner's office, I took out a right-to-know form, because they said no, these are not public records, but of course they were, because there was a public inquiry."
He said records were nowhere to be found at the North Side warehouse that was supposed to house them. Eventually, the Gammage family legal adviser, Robert Del Greco, gave him a full set of records, which he copied and returned.
"The play is highly reliant on documentary material -- transcripts, on the coroner's inquest, some hearings -- there were numerous legal hearings before the first case went to trial, and there were three trials -- so there was all that material to work through," Mr. Favorini said. "I must have looked at more than a thousand PG articles because the case stretched over three, almost four years. As Mark was saying, we also did some live interviews with people like Tim Stevens [former head of the NAACP] and Dr. Cyril Wecht [former county coroner], Beth Pittinger of the Civilian Police Review Board. ... We undertook this like reporters."
Mr. Favorini had taken on a project that required going through a massive amount of material before, having produced "Steel/City," a history of the industry in Pittsburgh that was first produced onstage in 1976.
"I knew what I was getting into. What I didn't anticipate was how vivid and raw an issue it still is to so many people on both sides of the questions: Were the cops right, or were they wrong? Did a man unjustly have his life taken away? ... On both sides of that issue, it's never been laid to rest because we've never dealt with the underlying racial tensions."
Mr. Southers recalled attending a New York performance by actor-writer Chazz Palminteri, who was talking about growing up Italian in New York, naming names and locations that had the audience responding in recognition. Mr. Southers expects a similar response to "The Gammage Project."
"I've never been involved in a project like this that will touch everybody that walks through the door on some level. Because we're in Pittsburgh, it will still have an effect, but it would be a totally different effect in another city," he said. "There's a resonance in Pittsburgh, sort of like an August Wilson play, when you start talking about locations and places and folks can relate and respond in the audience."
In the aftermath of Mr. Gammage's death, ruled to have been caused by positional asphyxiation, some members of the community became incensed when the prosecutions of three policemen failed and the Justice Department did not pursue civil rights violations. The officers involved remain in their communities, something that Mr. Favorini said "we did think about" in portraying the events of 16 years ago.
"I think there are some indications that things haven't changed as much as some of us would hope they would change," he said."
Correction/Clarification: (Published February 6, 2012) The five officers involved in the Jonny Gammage case represented three suburban police departments. A story about the new play, "The Gammage Project," said all were from Brentwood.
First Published February 5, 2012 12:00 am