"My heart stopped for a moment," said Goldfinger, a critically acclaimed playwright who has made Philadelphia her home for four years, on hearing about the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., with its obvious parallels to her own work. "It had echoes not only of what I was writing about in the play, but about how the American justice system lets people down. My heart skipped a beat. It was so horrible." The play has its world premiere Wednesday at the Adrienne.
In writing Slip/Shot, Goldfinger had already gone back and forth about whether to make her shooting accidental or an overt act of racism, finally deciding, not long before rehearsals with Flashpoint began, on an accidental event - a slip of the gun in the hands of Clem, a white man in his 20s who is deeply haunted by violent racist acts committed by his father.
After hearing about the Martin case, she said, she again considered making it a deliberate act, but she and Flashpoint artistic director Thom Weaver decided to leave it alone. The parallels are still enough to stop you cold.
The play toggles between scenes of Monroe's mother and girlfriend, and Clem and his wife, who alternately occupy the same kitchen on stage. The aftermath of the tragedy is dramatized from all perspectives, including that of the sheriff, played by Keith Conallen, who tells Clem, "There ain't gonna be no charges. It's just an accident report in a drawer. Locked away."
"It's a powerful piece already, but with all this going on, there's going to be much more to talk about," said Taysha Canales, who plays Phrasie, the victim's girlfriend. She later challenges Clem's contention that the shooting was accidental, asking, "Somethin' your daddy used to say, teachin' you to be afraid of someone different, didn't make it easier to shoot?"
"It helped me a little to make a connection with the whole Trayvon thing," Canales said. "It's a strong emotional feeling that I get from this, because it's all the same. It's like Jackie told the future."
Perhaps the cast member with the deepest connection to Trayvon Martin is Akeem Davis, 25, who plays Monroe.
Davis, a recent graduate of Florida State University, grew up in Miami and attended the same middle and high schools as Martin, in the same neighborhood in Miami. Both Davis and Benjamin Crump, the attorney who has been representing the Martin family, were members of Omega Psi Phi fraternity at Florida State.
"I can't express the degree to which this young man is me," he said.
"When I auditioned for the play, Trayvon Martin hadn't happened yet. But there was Martin Anderson, … in boot camp, and the guards acquitted. I'm 25 years old. There's an area in Miami named Overtown that hasn't recovered from the riots" in 1980, over the beating death of a young black man in which police were acquitted. "This play was really poignant for me, having spent time in Tallahassee, being a graduate. Black people have only been there 50 years. I'm tied to this script and what it's about, and I believe it's very significant."
As an actor, he said, he believes Clem's assertion in the script that the shooting was an accident, and a tragedy in a classic sense, with Clem, in Oedipus fashion, having no way to escape the sins of his racist father. Goldfinger herself calls the play a ghost story, with all the characters haunted by their pasts.
But regardless of the circumstances, in the death of the fictional Monroe or the real-life Trayvon, the aftermath is irrevocable. This is what the play makes the audience face, he said.
"This young man will never have a chance to achieve his aspirations, hug his father, tell his mom that he loves her, kiss a girl and fall in love," Davis said. "I think that Slip/Shot gives that actual vision a life. It brings that on the stage. No matter how you feel about Clem, that's still a life that nothing can bring back."
The other day, during rehearsal of a key scene between Canales' Phrasie and Clem, played by Kevin Meehan, and in another scene with his wife Kitty (Rachel Camp), the actors hashed out with director Rebecca Wright what the characters might be feeling, how they were managing to go on with their lives, or not. There were intense moments.
"This is beyond me at this point," Meehan said during a scene in which his wife finds him boarding up windows to keep them safe (in "a house of locks with no keys" as she describes it) from black people he fears will be looking to avenge Monroe's death.
During a break, the actors said they hoped audiences would be energized by the play's sad, sudden relevance.
"It's a little freaky and weird," Camp said. "To be working on it and have all that come up, art reflecting life. We talked so much about the '60s, what it meant to be black, or a woman or a married couple in the '60s. Then this happened and it's like, 'What year is this?' "
Weaver, the artistic director, said, "There's 250 years of racial violence, a societal inheritance - it's not just a personal inheritance. In some sense, it's bizarre that we're doing this play and happened, and in another sense it's not surprising at all."
Meehan said he had not paid too much attention to news reports about Martin and his assailant, George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch member who said he shot in self-defense and has not been charged. But he said the play made clear that all sides should be considered in the aftermath. With Zimmerman himself remaining silent, watching Meehan play Clem in the privacy of his home is hold-your-breath provocative.
"What's the percentage of people walking into the show that have their minds made up already?" Meehan said. Even though the shooting is accidental, he said, his character "can't forgive" himself.
"Maybe something that was said to you growing up . That's really jarring. Did I inherit this racist, violent impulse that I can't even control in that split second?"
For Davis, being in a play whose subject matter is so personal and relevant has been a privilege. "Not to be all majestic and spiritual about it, but it's eerie," he said. "It's a great opportunity to be able to speak, to use theater as a form of dialogue from every single angle. I was really excited it was set in a place I knew so well, and could tap into the differences between black and white culture, to put my craft to work in a way that's profound and effective, and about something I'm passionate about, to really feel like it's significant and not just a lofty, artsy thing to do. With this situation, it's a profound responsibility."
Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.
Slip/Shot Through May 5 at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. Tickets: $5-$20. www.flashpointtheatre.org or 215-665-9720.