Did he or didn’t he?
That question is at the heart of mystery fiction, true crime books and a lot of investigative reporting. And it’s the fundamental question raised in “Justice in the Embers,” a play by Michelle T. Johnson receiving its world premiere at the Living Room.
The 60-minute docu-drama is a joint production of the Living Room, KCPT and the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. This is the seventh play to be staged under the center’s StoryWorks program and the first in Kansas City. Based on reporting by Mike McGraw, an investigative reporter who retired from The Kansas City Star in 2014 and now works for the Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT, the play examines the possibility that four people may remain behind bars for something they didn’t do.
McGraw spent years reporting on the federal investigation and prosecution following a 1988 construction site explosion that took the lives of six Kansas City firefighters. Ultimately five people were convicted in federal court on hearsay in the absence of physical evidence, according to McGraw’s reporting. One died in prison and four remain incarcerated.
Johnson’s play focuses on one of them — Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explosion. He maintains his innocence but a Supreme Court ruling that sentencing juveniles — meaning anyone under the age of 18 — to life without parole is unconstitutional could mean a shorter sentence and the possibility of release.
Director Jennifer Welch of San Franscisco has assembled a strong cast of Kansas City-based actors to bring Johnson’s version of the story to the stage. Sheppard, who identifies as Native American, is played by Moses Brings Plenty, a charismatic actor I had not seen before. He is supported by Amy Attaway as Cyndy Short, Sheppard’s attorney; Nancy Marcy as Vergie, Sheppard’s mom; Frank Oakley III. as a prison guard sympathetic to Sheppard’s possible innocence; and Chris Roady as a guard who comes from a family of firefighters and cops and rejects the possibility of Sheppards innocence.
A sixth character, unrelated to the dramatic action, is an unnamed firefighter played by Tim Ahlenius who addresses the audience in monologues as a way of sharing the general attitudes of the men and women whose job it is to risk their lives to save others.
The firefighter is a fictional creation. So are the guards, whose principal function to (a) provide exposition on the questionable tactics employed in prosecuting Sheppard and the others and (b) the view that he may actually be guilty and deserves to be in prison.
Needless to say, the aesthetic rules of conventional drama do not necessarily apply to documentary theater, mainly because the playwright is limited, more or less, by the facts. The results can be fascinating but may lack the dramatic highs and lows theatergoers expect from classics by August Wilson, David Mamet or Lorraine Hansberry. Johnson makes the most of her fleeting opportunities to inject poetry into the proceedings, mainly through the firefighter monologues so nicely played by Ahlenius.
The role of Vergie gives Marcy a chance to do some of her best work as a crusty but loving mother who says what she thinks and maintains her son’s innocence. Johnson’s writing and Marcy’s performance deliver a memorable character study.
Attaway brings her customary poise to the stage as an attorney whose dialogue consists mainly of legal options and technicalities. Oakley and Roady are effective as the mouthpieces for opposing points of view. And Moses Brings Plenty is a formidable presence as Sheppard even if some of his line readings are a little stiff.
David Kiehl’s effective sound design lends palpable atmosphere to the show. So does Shane Rowse’s nuanced lighting. Scenery is minimal.
Johnson, a former journalist and one-time attorney, lays out the pro and con arguments clearly. But watching the play and reading McGraw’s reporting, some of which is reprinted in the program, you can’t avoid the logical conclusion that Sheppard and his fellow defendants may have been railroaded.
Each performance is followed by a talk-back session facilitated by Welch, the director. On Saturday night the panelists included McGraw; Johnson; the real Cyndy Short; Tom Jackman, a former Star reporter who now works for the Washington Post and the cast. McGraw said he extended an invitation to the U.S. Attorney’s office but he never received a response.
“Justice in the Embers” runs through Feb. 20 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. Call 816-533-5857. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.thelivingroomkc.com.