We usually only get to hear about miscarriages of justice once they’re over – and when that happens there’s an expectation that we should be celebrating. Of course it’s good news when an innocent man or woman is released from a sentence they never should have received – but shouldn’t we also feel some anger, and a desire to change the system that imposed the sentence in the first place, stealing years or even decades from someone’s life? Why congratulate the people who got it wrong when we should be making sure they can’t ever do it again?
It was this anger that prompted Conor Carroll to begin writing It Is So Ordered, after hearing the true story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man who spent 39 years in prison in the USA for a crime he didn’t commit. Jackson’s conviction was based on the coerced testimony of a young boy, and his release only secured when the same witness finally felt able to reveal the truth four decades later.
Opening during the Harlem Race Riots of 1964, the play begins with the fatal shooting of a shop owner and the arrest of teenage brothers Johnny and Craig. A younger boy, Bobby (Faaiz Mbelizi), is interrogated by the police and forced into giving evidence at the brothers’ trial. While Craig accepts a deal and is later released on parole, Johnny (Simon Mokhele) continues to protest his innocence and ends up with a life sentence. But he’s not the only one – Bobby must live every day with the knowledge of what he’s done, unable to retract his story for fear of repercussions for himself and his family.
Carroll’s passion for his subject is clear in every moment of this intense, urgent play, and in the heartfelt, utterly convincing performances of Faaiz Mbelizi and Simon Mokhele. As Johnny’s imprisonment stops being something that happened years ago and stretches into our own lifetimes – a reference to 9/11 revealing just how long it’s been – we’re forced to consider whether things have really changed all that much, even now, in terms of the U.S. justice system and the mistreatment by police of African Americans, which continues to make headlines today.
The play’s message is one that needs to be heard, and director Lucy Curtis opts for a stripped-back production that allows us to focus without any distractions. Carroll’s words fly thick and fast as the actors pace the floor, unafraid to make direct, confrontational eye contact with the audience. While on paper their lives may seem like opposites, in reality neither man is truly free, and their lines fit together seamlessly to form a single narrative of horrifying injustice. The stage becomes an evidence room of sorts as key details – dates, names, the outline of the murder victim and of the interrogation room – are scribbled in chalk on the floor and walls so that our eyes are constantly drawn back to them. There’s certainly a case to be answered… but it’s not Johnny or Bobby who should be on trial here.
And yet. Despite all this, there’s a note of resilience and hope for a better future, even in the darkest moments. When the two men lift their voices and sing together of their determination to one day be free, we feel that perhaps all isn’t yet completely lost. And when Johnny begs Bobby to stand up and be heard, we know full well he’s not only addressing the other man, but the whole room – and beyond.
We never get to witness the celebratory moment of Johnny’s long-awaited release from prison, though it’s fair to assume this is imminent as the stage goes dark. Consequently, we leave the theatre feeling not relaxed and reassured by the story’s happy ending, but filled with a lingering fury at everything that’s gone before it. It Is So Ordered is a gripping and powerful hour of theatre that deserves to be seen – and acted upon.
It Is So Ordered is at the Pleasance until 16th April.