Recalling Jonny Gammage: Play about a black man's death at police hands is wrenching

February 04, 2012
Written by: Sharon Eberson
Published by: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mark Clayton Southers has been working on "The Gammage Project" for two years and directing the play through rehearsals as it readies for a Thursday opening. There was a moment when he let his actors do some freestyle acting, just to have a little fun, before getting back to the play.

"That's going to be the most fun we have," he said. "It's a real tough piece. I found myself almost tearing up over dialogue I've heard eight, 10 times when the actress delivered it [in rehearsal]. It was heart-wrenching, because you never know when something like this can happen to a family member."

Painful memories of Jonny Gammage's death echoed through time when Jordan Miles was beaten by police two years ago, a case that became a renewed call to action for Attilio "Buck" Favorini. The playwright teamed with Mr. Southers -- a marriage of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory company and Pittsburgh Playwrights -- to create what is billed as a "docu-drama" of the events of 16 years ago.

Mr. Gammage, the 31-year-old cousin of former Steeler Ray Seals, died during a traffic stop in a confrontation with five police officers on Oct. 12, 1995. Mr. Miles, then a senior at Pittsburgh CAPA, was stopped in his Homewood neighborhood on Jan. 12, 2010, and ended up badly beaten by several officers. In both cases, the injured party was black, the officers were white.

Mr. Miles' physical wounds have healed, but outrage over his ordeal and the Gammage tragedy remains.

"I wanted to write a play about the Jonny Gammage incident ever since it happened," said Mr. Favorini, founding chair of Pitt's Department of Theatre Arts. "The immediate trigger for saying 'now's the time to write it' is because there are some eerie parallels between the two cases."...

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