'Ferguson' Play in L.A. Sees Actor Exodus

Ann McElhinney
Phelim McAleer

The play by a right-wing activist loses eight out of 13 castmembers, who objected to its contents.

Right-wing activist Phelim McAleer's new play, Ferguson, suffered a casting diaspora this week as eight of the show's 13 actors quit over objections to the material.

But according to McAleer, the show will go on. "If I have to stand on stage and read the script in my Irish brogue, this performance will go," he said in a statement about the show's four-night run, which begins Sunday at L.A.'s Odyssey Theatre. "I'm from Northern Ireland. No one tells me to shut up. I believe the truth is really important."

The director of documentaries including Mine Your Own Business: The Dark Side of Environmentalism; Not Evil, Just Wrong: The True Cost of Global Warming, (a refutation of An Inconvenient Truth); and FrackNation, a film in support of fracking, McAleer missed last Saturday's rehearsal because he was away at a conservative political leadership conference in Pennsylvania.

By the time he got to meet with the cast, five had quit, including Philip Casnoff, who tells The Hollywood Reporter he was asked to join the cast without having been given a script. After the first table read, he found the play — which uses grand jury testimony and evidence to paint a picture of the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson — completely biased against Brown.

After a two-hour meeting April 23 between McAleer and the remaining castmembers, another three walked out, including Donzaleigh Abernathy, whose father, civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy, was with Martin Luther King Jr. when he died.

"We were all concerned because the testimony made Michael Brown look like a villain and a big bully and some drugged-out kid who was a bad guy," says Abernathy.

Using only testimony taken from transcripts, Ferguson begins by presenting two witnesses, one for indictment and one against, neither of whom give statements consistent with the majority of accounts or physical evidence. Security camera footage of Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store shortly before his confrontation with Wilson is played over testimony detailing Brown's use of marijuana, with the rest of the play dedicated primarily to Wilson's testimony, as well as that of an eyewitness who corroborates his account of Brown charging at him.

After what McAleer called a two-hour question-and-answer session, he concluded, "They wanted more evidence supporting Michael Brown. The answer to that was, 'It wasn't [in the grand jury testimony].'"

But his cast points to 12 eyewitnesses who say Brown never charged Wilson. Based on testimony and a blood trail, the Department of Justice concluded that Brown was moving toward Wilson, though most claim he was staggering. Instead, McAleer focuses on four eyewitnesses who say Brown charged, one of them being Wilson.

"I believe that he deliberately omitted from the script the autopsy and the medical examiner's report about how many times Michael was shot," offers Abernathy, who asked McAleer if Ferguson wasn't perhaps meant as a provocation for him to capitalize on. "He smiled," she recalls. "That, to me, was pretty disturbing. I said, 'There is nothing funny about this. This is an emotional issue for us.'"

A recent immigrant from Northern Ireland who lives in Marina del Rey, McAleer says he's profoundly disappointed by his Ferguson experience, but vows to have the play on its feet in time for Sunday. "I thought this was a place where avant-garde ideas could be put on stage, where fresh perspectives are welcome."

For Abernathy, one overriding factor for quitting the play was her father's civil rights work. "I could not morally or ethically be a part of something that I know will harm the African-American community, because I'm a black woman, and I have to live with myself," she says. "I gave this play the benefit of the doubt. But [McAleer] is taking what has proven to be the most racial issue that our country has had in the past few years and sensationalized it for his personal gain. And that's egregious, as far as I'm concerned. It's just morally wrong."