Midtown: Community

Justice Theater Project offers timely look at American politics

The Justice Theater Project is at it again, pricking our collective consciousness with a season-long discussion about political responsibility.

Just in time to wrap our heads around our responsibility as democratic citizens in a presidential election year, JTP will open its 2012-2013 season, We Are Called, with Peter Morgan’s Tony Award-nominated “Frost/Nixon.”

The historical drama depicts the story of the 1977 interview former President Richard Nixon granted to David Frost, a British talk-show host with a playboy reputation who vowed to “give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.”

The play, directed by Carnessa Ottelin, explores behind the scenes of the interview, including the role of advisers on both sides and the fees paid. It highlights Nixon’s expectation that Frost would fail and revive Nixon’s reputation, and Frost’s determination to force Nixon to apologize and admit his involvement in wrongdoings.

In the final interview recordings, the impeached president admitted he had made unethical decisions and committed unethical acts.

“I let them down,” Nixon told Frost. “I let down my friends. I let down my country and, worst of all, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but now think, ‘Oh, it’s all too corrupt and the rest.’

“Yeah, I let the American people down, and I’m going to have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life. My political life is over.”

A timely topic

JTP’s production couldn’t be timelier.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Watergate break-in, and it’s been 38 years since Nixon’s 1974 resignation speech. Our country also is in the throes of a presidential election season that includes campaigns too often reduced to political posturing and avoidance of real issues.

Let’s also not forget the big screen box office is abuzz with “The Campaign,” a comedy about two North Carolinians vying for a seat in Congress and the lengths to which they’ll go to win. “It’s poking fun, but it’s not too far from the truth,” said Deb Royals Mizerk, JTP’s artistic director.

Mizerk said she hopes JTP’s season, which also will include “Julius Caesar” and “Ragtime,” will remind us We Are Called to examine our political responsibility and to participate with purpose in elections. We Are Called to consider how U.S. policies can relieve or worsen “poverty in every sense” at home and across the world, she said. And We Are Called to identify and seek opportunities for change that exist within our society.

“Frost/Nixon” is the perfect place to start, Mizerk said, because the show represents performance, social justice, political engagement and media perspective.

“It’s a great comment on where we are right now,” she said. “All of those things are pervasive in our elections.

“It’s a good way to have a different kind of conversation before our election,” she added. “Why are we electing people – because their shirt and tie match, because of their language? What should we really be talking about?

“What roles do the media play? What role does money play? What role does lack of conversation around the true description of what we need in political leaders play? We need to have a conversation about what we need to talk about, and about what’s getting in the way of a clear conversation.”

Time to discuss

Mizerk also hopes that conversation will begin in the theater. There will be opportunities to register to vote at each show. On opening night, a reception will be offered after the show, and the Sept. 15 show will feature a pre-show roundtable discussion, “Politics, Conscience and the Media.” Another special event: Free babysitting by SeedRaleigh at the Sept. 9 $10 matinee.

On Sept. 23, a post-show discussion at 3:30 p.m. will feature author James Reston Jr., upon whom the play’s Jim Reston character is based.

While Reston, a Morehead scholar, was teaching English at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1977, he was recruited by Frost to be his Watergate adviser and to devise the strategy for interrogating Nixon.

The play is based on Reston’s participation in the Frost/Nixon interviews and his book, “The Conviction of Richard Nixon,” which he wrote afterward in Chapel Hill in 1977 but did not publish until 2007. Reston will show footage of the actual interviews and then speak about his experience.

Those who wish to join that discussion but not attend that showing of the play can buy $10, standing-room-only tickets at the door.