Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
After a sudden cancellation, a play about a 1913 racially charged murder trial will be produced at The Public Theater of San Antonio on Feb. 27 and 28 with a new title, The Balcony.
Local attorney Lee Cusenbary wrote The Trial of Lee Johnson, a true-to-life courtroom drama, for a performance in the Double Height courtroom at the Bexar County Courthouse, where the original Johnson trial was held.
The play was to be the centerpiece of a gala benefiting the Bexar County Family Justice Center, but the event was postponed because the play’s subject was deemed a poor fit for the "traditional message of hope and renewal that has been shared in the past,” according to the organization.
After the event was postponed, Cusenbary said that he was contacted by George Green, artistic director and CEO of the Public Theater.
“I saw on social media that [the] play had been canceled,” said Green, who added that he was pleased the Public Theater now has “yet another event to celebrate Black History Month.
"It’s vital to what we’re trying to do as an establishment,” he said.
The gala to benefit the Family Justice Center has been rescheduled for May 15, and organizers asked Cusenbary to write a new play for the event. Cusenbary agreed, planning to pen a new, more lighthearted, trial-based theatrical event appropriate to the Justice Center’s mission.
“I can understand some of the desire to keep things lighthearted,” said Rebekah Williams, an actor in The Balcony. But she believes there is also fear of racial issues in the story of the Johnson trial, in which a black man was executed by hanging for the murder of a prominent white San Antonio physician.
“But what it comes down to,” she said, “is we can’t erase the history in the play." Williams is excited for the rescheduled event, she said. “It’s a wonderful story to tell, [one] that reminds us of where we come from.”
Green, Cusenbary, and the Public Theater staff all agreed that the black box theater environment of the Public’s Cellar Theater would be well-suited to The Trial of Lee Johnson, despite it being originally written for the courthouse venue.
“Theater is about the story first,” Green said. Cusenbary’s script is “solid,” he said, and that “I feel confident that though you may not be sitting in an actual courtroom as initially anticipated, our audience will be visualizing their own space.”
Said Williams: “The feeling of being in the same room where [the trial] happened won’t be there, but with acting we can recapture some of that feeling.”
Cusenbary agreed. "I think the actors are so good that it won’t matter where they do it," he said. "You’ll get the messages and you’ll enjoy the performances."
The intimacy of the theater also will enhance the audience experience, he said, noting that "every single person will hear every word, and be almost in the courtroom with these actors."
“People are going to tend to focus more on the story, which will make it more impactful, in my artistic opinion,” Green said.
Both Green and Williams pointed out that the play will now be available to a wider audience, having moved from a private fundraising event to the recently rebranded public venue, formerly The Playhouse San Antonio.
“Our purpose as an organization and as an institution is to serve our city,” Green said. “This aligns with that perfectly.”
The Rivard Report is the media sponsor for the two performances of The Balcony. Tickets, which went on sale Thursday, are available at the Public Theater’s box office and website.