The Justice Project
Sojurn Theater Through July 8
After finding all the entrances locked at the Gus Solomon Courthouse--a fitting venue for a play called The Justice Project--my friend and I neglected to take the hint and found a little side door through which we could slip inside. We wove our way through a maze of hallways until we chanced upon an elevator that wasn't locked down for the night. We went up to the courtroom on the sixth floor, and sure enough, The Justice Project was in full swing. Strangely, the door to the space had been left wide open, and there was no one taking tickets or giving out programs. But hey, I thought, this company just has an attitude; they leave the doors locked, they don't give out programs, you have to sneak in--they don't pander to no one.
Our skulking about had made us a few minutes late, so we quietly seated ourselves in the back row and settled down to enjoy the show we had worked so hard to see. To create The Justice Project, director Michael Rohd interviewed a series of convicts, lawyers, judges, and normal citizens on the theme of justice, and turned their testimonies into a 90-minute diatribe on What's Unjust About Portland. Topics ranging from racism in high schools, to corrupt law enforcement, to life in juvenile hall are all covered. It reminded me a lot of the community outreach projects that used to blaze through my elementary school, only the acting in this one was about 10 times better.
The scenes that focus on character rather than issues work the best. The one with two kids having a dialogue about life in juvenile hall, and the one where inmates and visitors enter and exit a correctional facility, are both particularly strong.
Occasionally, Rohd becomes a bit too caught up with equal stage time. A scene where a man tells a story about dealing with a black homeless man becomes confusing when the monologue gets broken up and told by three different actors, all pretending to be the same person. In another scene, a very fair-skinned, blonde Jules Bausch announces that she is Asian, and in yet another scene proclaims herself a man. Such lessen the intended message by filtering it through gimmicks.
But in general, the show is gripping, even when its arguments start to beat you over the head. The company uses the elegant courtroom interior with great jubilance. Characters stand barefooted on the judge's bench, gleefully hurdle jury seats, and lounge with their feet up on the witness stand. Rohd overcomes transitions between the basically unrelated scenes through some nifty staging. At odd, arbitrary moments the action lapses into abstract choreography and weird, new-age music, which drags down an otherwise gritty evening. Fortunately these moments are few.
When it was over, I finally realized that the date was actually June 21st. For no apparent reason, I was convinced that it was June 22nd, but I had been dead wrong. Instead of attending opening night, my friend and I had rudely invaded Sojourn's final dress rehearsal.
Which means that the show is going to get even better than it was when it actually has, say, an audience. And I bet if you go on a night when the show is actually up and running, you won't even have to sneak in.