‘The Gammage Project’ offers insight

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Hindsight offers a clearer perspective and such is the case for the risky world premiere production “The Gammage Project,” a collaborative effort of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company and University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre that opened Feb. 9 at the Henry Heymann Theatre, and finished up at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture March 4.

GammageProject
SCENE FROM GAMMAGE PROJECT

Written by Attilio “Buck” Favorini, Gammage traverses almost every imaginable social landmine—prejudice, classism, the legal justice system, institutional racism, police brutality and use of excessive force—and effectively detonates each one through the use of court transcripts, legal documents, local news reports and first-hand accounts to reconstruct the events that led to the death of Jonny Gammage and the subsequent mistrials and acquittals and the harrowing echo of events of the Jordan Miles case.

Just the idea of such a hot button topic that still resonates more than 15 years after the event would be enough to discourage many from attempting to tackle such as endeavor, yet “The Gammage Project” is the epitome of the many “teachable moments” that the nation has tried to digest over the past few years. For Favorini, a faculty member in Pitt’s Theatre Department, the Jordan Miles beat down was the impetus to connect the dots of similarities with the Gammage case.

In his notes Favorini writes, “The brutal death of a young Black businessman (Gammage), devoted to gospel music and charity work, in the custody of five White policemen was frightening and disheartening to Black and White alike. But the event that caused me to write this play now was the near repeat of the Gammage incident in the case of CAPA student Jordan Miles, still unresolved… I simply could no longer stand with the silent.”

The play itself offers a mix of stage veterans and new actors, some of whom play multiple roles. The major characters portrayed include people involved in the actual events who are still living in Pittsburgh. Director Mark Clayton Southers wisely opts to not have the play actors imitate them.

For those who lived in Pittsburgh in October 1995 and the subsequent trial coverage, “The Gammage Project” may resurrect an uncomfortable past; for others, it will offer insight into a long shadow cast over southwest PA that can’t be shaken off. It is said that art imitates life and in this “post-racial American” we would be wise to pay attention and take heed.

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