If you see one play about racism on Broadway this season, please do find me at some point and tell me why you bothered. Take A Time to Kill, for example, Rupert Holmes’s totally unnecessary adaptation of John Grisham’s 1989 novel, in which the audience of Gothamite yuppies and wealthy tourists are invited to sneer at the horrors of racism in the rural South by way of a couple of really loathsome stage tricks, including the casting of the audience as the jury in the trial for the murder of a black man (the estimable John Douglas Thompson, who deserves much better) who has killed the two rednecks who raped his 10-year-old daughter because he knows they won’t get the death penalty. They-I’m sorry, we-vote, of course, to acquit. So take your grandparents. The sound you hear at the end of the show is not applause, it’s the audience patting itself on the back.
You might actually be able to make a compelling stage drama out of A Time to Kill, which is not a bad book as potboilers go (although it’s also not as good as Grisham’s The Chamber), but Holmes and director Ethan McSweeny have counted on our sympathy with Thompson’s character, Carl Lee Hailey, for no reasons other than that we get to see Carl Lee’s wife (played by Tonya Pinkins), and they seem to like each other okay, and there’s an eye-rolling interjection of some shaky-cam video (ostensibly from the POV of the raped girl) and someone pitifully screaming “Daddy!” The court is asked to buy a stunningly implausible insanity defense, but the audience is given a different, less obviously rigged defense: What father, we are asked, would not be innocent of murder if he’d known these two yokels had violated his daughter?
Let the record show that this is a terrible question, and one with skin-crawling implications: for us to stand and ovate at the end of the show, we have to believe that not only is the death penalty not wrong, it’s administerable by anyone with an acceptable grudge. Remember, the question is not whether or not Hailey should be put to death, it’s whether or not he should be acquitted. Rape is not a capital crime in this country. As recently as 2008, the Supreme Court overturned death sentences for that crime-some under circumstances so heinous they beggar belief-in Louisiana, Georgia, and three other states, presumably voiding judgments like the one Hailey passes on the two men who assaulted his child. The sentences were changed to life without parole, which is not a picnic, either, but I don’t doubt that there are plenty of people who agree with Hailey that anybody who would hurt a child in this way should be destroyed like a rabid dog.
It would be hard to call those people “liberals,” though. The death penalty has been abandoned by nearly every civilized country with the glaring exception of the U.S. (and other countries use it sparingly-neither Cuba nor Russia has executed anyone in the last 10 years). There’s been an international movement adopted as a rule by no less than the U.N., which we’ve summarily ignored; it comes out of a laudable Italian political group called, amazingly, “Hands Off Cain.” Quoting the Bible at conservatives-Cain, of course, was protected by God despite murdering his brother-is always a dicey proposition, but sometimes it has its rewards. The title of this play comes from Ecclesiastes 3, when the poet tells the despairing Israelites that there is “a time to kill and a time to heal,” but there’s more to it than that: “Anyone who is alive has hope,” the writer says a few pages later. “Even a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward and even their name is forgotten.”
Perhaps all this takes much too seriously a play starring movie stars (Tom Skerritt), actors who look like movie stars (Sebastian Arcelus, who might as well be wearing a Matthew Mcconaughey mask), and actors (Thompson and Patrick Page, whose visage has become a profound relief to those of us who’ve sat through shows like this one and Spider-Man), in that order. But I think it would be doing this play a great favor to roll our eyes and dismiss it-how did it get here? Why do we have a play stealthily defending the death penalty on Broadway? Can we seriously let the image of a white guy and a black guy walking out of a 1980s courtroom together convince us that racial harmony is just around the corner when the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act this summer?
Moreover, where are the plays that demonstrate the attractions of racism in a way that people who live in New York City might understand? I’ve seen one, actually, on Broadway, a few years ago, in the form of The Scottsboro Boys. It was the last collaboration between the great John Kander and Fred Ebb and it ranked among the best and most disturbing shows I’d ever had the good fortune to see-here we all were, saying to ourselves, “Oh, this sounds like ‘Swanee’! I know that song! That’s Gershwin!” and then hearing the lyrics altered perfectly to segue from odes to grits and pulled pork into “How the sights and sounds come back to me! Like my daddy hangin’ from a tree.” The show was dangerous precisely because you kept catching yourself enjoying it-you kept slipping into nostalgia, and Kander and Ebb and their amazing ensemble kept kicking you in the gut for it. I suppose that’s an odd prescription for successful theater about race, but it’s all I’ve got: kick the audience more often, please.