One on One: Favorini drama recounts Gammage case
Just days after the murder trial acquittal of O.J. Simpson in October 1995 riveted a racially divided American public, the overwhelmingly white Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood was the scene of another racially charged episode when Jonny Gammage, a 31-year-old unarmed African American, ended up dead of asphyxiation at the scene of a police-ordered traffic stop on Route 51. Gammage died within minutes of the “pull-over” in the presence of five white police officers.
Following the incident, a coroner’s inquest panel recommended that homicide charges be filed against the five officers who were at the scene: Brentwood Lt. Milton Mulholland, Baldwin Borough patrolman Michael G. Albert, Brentwood patrolman John Vojtas, and Sgt. Keith Henderson and patrolman Shawn Patterson, both of the Whitehall force.
Instead, then-District Attorney Robert Colville announced he would file charges against only Mulholland and Albert, who were tried together, and Vojtas, who was tried separately. The three were charged not with homicide but involuntary manslaughter. No charges ever were filed against Henderson or Patterson.
From the beginning, the incident and its legal aftermath have weighed heavily on Attilio “Buck” Favorini, Pitt theatre arts professor and playwright. Now, 16 years later — the last two years dedicated to writing a play about the Gammage incident — Favorini is presenting the world premiere of “The Gammage Project,” a docudrama that debuts Feb. 9 with a preview at the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial. The play runs through Feb. 19 at the Heymann then moves to the August Wilson Center for performances March 2-4. (For ticket information, call 412/624-7529.)
The production is a first-time collaboration between the Pitt Repertory Theatre and the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, whose founder and artistic director Mark Clayton Southers is directing the Gammage play.
Favorini sat down recently with University Times staff writer Peter Hart to reflect on the play’s composition and intent and what he learned during the process of researching and writing it.
UNIVERSITY TIMES: What was your motivation to write “The Gammage Project”?
FAVORINI: This project is an interesting confluence of my academic and creative interests, because I have a book and several articles out on documentary theatre, and there has been in the last decade a flourishing of documentary theatre.
I knew the documentary technique both from studying it and also from writing other documentaries going back to 1976 with my play “Steel City.”
In 1995, when the Gammage death took place just outside of Brentwood, I was truly shocked by it. As one of the characters in the play says: “If it could happen to him, it could happen to anybody.”
Jonny Gammage was a black businessman who worked with his cousin Ray Seals, a popular Steeler.
Gammage was pulled over; seven minutes later he was dead.
It was an event that divided the city and divided the county in a way that really created some anxiety, because similar cases had resulted in civil unrest in L.A. and Cincinnati. But it also, paradoxically, united the city, because as [the character of then-president of the Pittsburgh NAACP] Tim Stevens says in the play he could think of no issue that brought black and white people together more.
But it’s not a simple case, or not a strictly familiar case, of white police negligence with a black man having to pay for it. It’s much more complicated than that.
Ever since the event I wanted to write a play about it. When the Jordan Miles case came along — just two years ago this month — where three white police officers who weighed a total of more than 600 pounds beat a 140-pound black teenager and pulled his hair out, I said: This is the Gammage story all over again, except Jordan Miles [managed to survive].
What were some of the challenges of this production?
One of the toughest things to do was to take this case that dragged out over three and half years and try to find a dramatic form that could encapsulate enough information so that people get a sense of the arc of how people reacted: for example, from the coroner’s inquest, when people thought justice was going to be done; to how they reacted to Colville’s decision, then to the mistrial in the first case, which for a time looked like it was going in the direction of guilt until [then-county coroner] Cyril Wecht caused a mistrial.
Over those three and a half years, hopes rose and fell over whether there would be some satisfactory resolution to the case and there just never was. By the time of third trial there were empty seats in the courtroom.
So the creative challenge was to take a series of events that spread out from October of 1995 to February of 1999, when the Justice Department said, “We’re not going forward with the case” after three trials, two of which ended in mistrials. The district attorney [in 1999], Stephen Zappala, said he would not pursue it either.
Robert Colville was the DA at the start of the case and while the coroner’s inquest panel recommended indicting five police officers for homicide, he only indicted three of them for the lesser charge of manslaughter.
There’s been a lot of debate over that decision. What Colville said was he needed Henderson, who was one of the two not indicted, as a prosecution witness, someone who could tell the story.
However, as things unfolded, when Henderson testified, he ended up being the star witness for the defense. It remains a mystery — one of many in the case, I might add — why the DA’s office didn’t get Henderson to make a sworn statement that he couldn’t go back on. Because he went back on some of the things he had said in hearings, in particular something related to a key factor in Gammage’s death, what police at the time called “yoking,” which is the use of a baton under the chin and on the throat of a suspect.
Henderson had originally said to the DA’s office that the practice was in use at the Gammage scene, but he refused to repeat that at trial.
What differentiates a docudrama from a standard play? Why did you choose that form?
The term documentary was coined in 1926. From the beginning, documentary has relied on “found dialogue,” that is, either public or private documents where somebody has committed spoken words. About 75 percent of this play is found dialogue. It relies on recordings of voices and film documentation as well. We’ve been out to the Brentwood site and taken some footage there. WPXI and KDKA gave us some footage. We have large-screen projections. We have a projection designer, part of the design team.
We also have statements made by two of the jurors. We’re using all of that. So the play will have a feeling of factuality.
We also use other media: still photographs; gospel music, because among Gammage’s distinctions is that when he went to SUNY-Buffalo he was head of the gospel choir.
It’s a tough show to do logistically with many changes in location and a big cast — about 23 actors, many of them playing more than one role — and that’s why we’re relying on video and still photographs, and we do some interesting things with minimally creating a courtroom atmosphere.
So most of the scenes are re-enactments with actors playing real people?
Yes. The pull-over is re-enacted in the theatre. The challenging thing about doing that is, of course, it was a very violent seven minutes, but more so the accounts that each of the five officers on the scene gave are irreconcilable. So in the play, I had to make choices, precisely as to who the biggest liar was, because I don’t think any of them told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
What were your sources of information for the play?
If you use Lexis/Nexis, you can find thousands of articles on the Jonny Gammage case. There was so much information just on the legal side, so much material available. Local coverage in my judgment was superb.
People involved with the case were pretty vocal. The Gammage family did interviews over time. The prosecuting attorney for the first two trials did interviews. Of course, Colville was on public record many times, on television and so on. There was a huge cache of information.
One interesting sidelight of the process of writing the play: When I started out, I sent my research assistant to the Office of Court Records to get ahold of trial transcripts.
She came back and said, “They told me they don’t have any.” I thought they’re just giving her the runaround. So I went down there. There was a helpful woman there and I said what I was looking for. I had all the docket numbers. She said, “Oh, we have that stuff, but it’s all over in a warehouse on the North Side. All you have to do is give me the docket numbers and we’ll have it for you on Monday.”
I went back Monday and there’s a big box waiting for me, but inside there were about [three sheets of paper].
It was all gone. I said, “Where is it?” They said, “We don’t know.” I said, “Who was the last person to take it out?” “We don’t know.”
So, now I’m stymied and puzzled.
I go to the DA’s office, and I say: “You guys must have copies, you were the prosecutors.” The person I speak to said, “If we had them, we wouldn’t give them to you.”
I started talking to some lawyers who recommended that I try to find the original court reporters, because the transcripts are their work product. I located them, and they were willing to sell me the transcripts.
I called [University Library System director] Rush Miller and I said, “Look, the University should buy them, because otherwise there will be no publicly accessible record on the trials.” It didn’t take him two seconds to say yes.
The next thing I want to get is the transcript of the coroner’s inquest, another public document. I called the medical examiner’s office and said I’d like to come over and look at the transcripts. They said, “These are not open to the public.” I said, “Yes they are.” They said: “You’ll have to talk to our attorneys.”
That happened to be the week I was working in Cyril Wecht’s office and I told Cyril and he said, “I’m going to call Mike Wojcik,” the county solicitor. Wojcik signed off on it.
Then I got a call from a medical examiner’s attorney and he said, “Yes, you can have those; they’re in a warehouse. We’ll order them for you and you can come back and get them.” A couple days later I get a call and they’re gone, too. Just gone.
Also, there are no files in the Brentwood police office. After Vojtas was exonerated they promoted him and put him in charge of record-keeping.
I finally got the inquest documents from Bobby Del Greco, a Pittsburgh attorney who was the legal adviser for the Gammage family. He called and said: “I’ve got good news for you: I found the coroner’s inquest materials and you can make copies.”
Do you address the issue of the missing documents in the play?
We don’t raise it in the play. I think we will in the talkbacks. I think the public should know that’s what they’d run into if they tried to get these documents. But the records now will be in [the University Library System]. So we will have the biggest collection anywhere of this material.
Did you learn anything while writing the play?
Yes, I did. I wouldn’t say my sympathies changed, I would say my understanding changed. Although both when I began and to this day I believe there was a racial motivation to this crime, I think there were a number of other factors that were just as important and perhaps more so in the ultimate outcome.
One is I learned how closely the various arms of law enforcement work together and how they depend on each other and consequently how reluctant they are to alienate any segment of that community. If the DA’s office has a case, they really need the best cooperation of the cop on the beat, the arresting officer, the detectives. So there’s a built-in conflict of interest. They are overprotective of each other.
The next thing I learned is that in 1995 there were 146 separate police jurisdictions in Allegheny County. There were multiple jurisdictions that showed up on the scene: Brentwood, Baldwin, Whitehall. Because some of these police departments are so small and so poor, they share radio channels, so that’s why you had five cops there for a pull-over which in itself wasn’t even justified.
In the coroner’s inquest, Mulholland said the only thing that was suspicious is that Jonny Gammage was tapping his brakes. Of course, you have to on the [Route 51] steep hill he was driving on.
So I learned that the confusion, the babble of 146 jurisdictions, has an effect on law enforcement.
I also learned there is a tremendous flow-through of people in the police department into the district attorney’s office and into the judgeships. That’s another network of complicated allegiances, which I think have their impact. It’s another degree of conflict of interest, but on the judicial side.
I’m not saying that Colville is a negative case in point; I make no judgment about him. But Colville was a beat cop, chief of police, a DA and now he’s a judge. One way or the other his decisions are formed by that experience.
You’re raising issues about race relations, legal relations, police relations — does the play attempt to say this is an ongoing problem or should the audience reach that conclusion?
Well, the play is not preachy. I think there even will be people who see the play who will come out saying, “Those cops did the right thing.” When you do documentary, you give both sides a voice. Although my sympathies are clearly one way, you give the other side a voice because you hope that people really hear that voice, hear what the argument is that voice is making and hear through it.
The other thing I learned is that the defendants had awfully good lawyers. The guy who defended Vojtas, who got Vojtas off, who did most of the defense work, Alexander Lindsey, was really brilliant. His opening statement alluded to the old TV show “Dragnet” — “… just the facts, ma’am.”
He read the jury perfectly. Of course, he helped to choose them: all white and mostly older. But right away he’s got the jury on his side. And in his closing argument he quotes Leviticus about the parable of the scapegoat. He makes out John Vojtas to be the scapegoat. It’s jaw-droppingly good. But that also says something about our legal system and how we pick our jurors.
I did track down a juror from the [second Mulholland-Albert] trial who gives voice to a kind of man-in-the-street. That jury had 11 white people and one black man, and of the three trials that man was the only black [juror].
The juror I tracked down expressed incredulity that there was any racial tension, that race could have been any factor whatsoever, and it came up directly in the trial because a new witness came forward, a guy named Bates, who said that he was a security guard in Brentwood Park and once in a while he talked with Mulholland, just chatting. He testified that Mulholland was using the N-word all the time and saying that what goes wrong in Brentwood is always the fault of blacks. There were 10 people, 10 black people out of 10,800, in all of Brentwood. And this juror said none of the jurors believed that a conversation like that could happen. So it’s not so much malicious racism, but naive racism.
What effect do you hope the play has on the audience?
The intent is to get people to rethink racial relations in Pittsburgh using the Jonny Gammage case to the extent that that case is representative of the unspoken ripple of racial tension. These issues are still with us, as evidenced by the Jordan Miles case.