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Who killed Stephen Lawrence? TheaterFIRST puts ‘Justice’ on trial

By Robert Hall, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 18, 2002

Some news stories that may seem too small to thrive, actually grow to haunt a culture. In this country the Jon Benet Ramsey murder lives on in seemingly endless permutations, while the shame and scandal of Stephen Lawrence’s death plagues England nearly a decade after the bloody act. 

And who was Stephen Lawrence? A black teen living in Eltham, South London, he was struck down by a gang of white youths in 1993 while he was innocently waiting for a bus. Were his stabbing, and the botched police probe that followed it, racist? Is merry England the home of a decidedly un-merry hate? 

The Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case within months, but the boy’s determined parents refused to be silenced. Why had the police treated them so contemptibly? Had authorities willfully sabotaged the investigation? “The police just didn’t want to dirty their hands with a black man’s death,” the bereaved mother insisted, and though the Crown persisted in claiming insufficient evidence, widespread outrage grew. 

After five years a public inquiry was held. 

That inquiry is now a play. Richard Norton-Taylor, of London’s “Guardian” newspaper, condensed thousands of pages of testimony into “The Colour of Justice.” His rousing docu-drama won awards in England. Now East Bay audiences can experience it in TheaterFIRST’s ambitious staging. 

And what ambition! In these tough times TheaterFIRST has found the resources to assemble 30 actors, representing six continents, to flesh out the tale. Further, as a commitment to what the Lawrence story represents, it’s redistributed the roles to give women half. 

The production starts out with a bang: the chase and murder reenacted in a starling explosion of violence. We in the audience are then led into an improvised courtroom, where we sit in judgment. The staging of the inquiry is imaginative and vivid. Played out on a bare wooden floor with minimal props – chairs, tables, a hospital gurney, golf clubs, flashlights – it has all the aspects of courtroom drama, with the added punch of dramatic collage. 

At one point the dead boy’s father rises before us to murmur about his son: “He hoped to be an architect.” His mother shows up, too: “I want Stephen to be remembered as a young man with a future.” We witness years of police obfuscation, and we see the devastating moment of Stephen’s death on a London pavement at night, when a white Samaritan holds his head in her lap, whispering, “You are loved.” 

“The Colour of Justice” is charged political theater. Like “The Laramie Project,” it tells a true story in ritualistic style, rearranging, heightening, leaving us to sort out truth and blame. It lasts a little long – it can be repetitive, with dead spots – and its bias is never in doubt, but these are minor flaws in a stirring staging. 

Produced by Clive Chafer, the show features sharp lighting by Michael S. Burg, and equally effective sound by Greg Scharpen. The remarkable ensemble of actors shows wit and verve. 

Director Randall Stuart has said, “I have been changed by getting to know Stephen.” Perhaps you’ll be changed, too.