Review: It Is So Ordered at the Pleasance

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?

Photo credit: Tim Hall

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.

Photo credit: Tim Hall

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.


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Interview: Lucy Curtis, It Is So Ordered

Changing Face is a multi-national theatre company based in Brixton and Bristol, whose work responds to the changing face of communities worldwide. Their latest production, Conor Carroll’s It Is So Ordered, opens at the Pleasance next month and turns the spotlight on racial injustice in the USA.

It Is So Ordered is set during the outbreak of wrongful and racially motivated imprisonments in 1960s America,” says director and Changing Face co-founder Lucy Curtis. “The play charts the tragic story of two imprisoned African American men linked by a lie, exploring the power of forgiveness in an unforgiving world. Inspired by true events, it explores the injustices caused, of which the repercussions are still being felt to this day. The play concerns itself with redemption for the sins of the past which can feel unforgivable and will take an enormous feat of empathy to conquer.”

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The play’s based on the story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man from Ohio who was convicted of a crime he never committed. “He was released 39 years later in 2014,” explains Lucy. “I had no idea about his story and I was angry that I had no awareness of it. I want the audience to leave aware, awake and alive to the injustices that are happening around them. I want them to go away feeling energised to look deeper into the issues displayed and to actively become involved in the political discourse it presents. I want them to care that these events have been happening for over half a century, and I want them to address that our ignorance to it is a problem.

“We’re living in a very uncertain time: we’re seeing the re-emergence of 20th century mentalities that, it turns out, were never completely left behind. I want the audience to interrogate: how far must we go before our justice systems possess a ‘colour blind’ approach to the law. Britain often claims to possess the finest judiciary system in the world. This just isn’t true – the justice we find both here and in America are neither colour blind nor equal.”

The play’s been developed in collaboration with the Old Vic New Voices and Park Theatre: “The Old Vic New Voices supported us at a pivotal moment in this piece’s development where we were trying to turn a 20-minute short play into a full length one,” explains Lucy. “They gave us time and resources to be able to test out our script through a research and development phase. They continue to support the work by giving us free access to rehearsal space and mentorship.

“The script was then selected as part of the Park’s Script Accelerator 2016 programme. We spent four weeks at the Park developing the play with weekly meetings with artistic staff. Being able to bounce ideas off other creatives whilst working consistently within a building that supports you and is interested in the story you are trying to tell was endlessly inspiring. We were able to test out our script at Park Theatre in November – the feedback we received was instrumental in carrying this play forward.”

The cast includes Simon Mokhele, who’s been working alongside It Is So Ordered for nearly a year, and newcomer Faaiz Mbelizi. “Simon (Johnny) trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, graduating in 2014, and his input has been fundamental in the shaping of the characters, storytelling and form. To still have him championing this story and this piece is a blessing and we can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in April. Faaiz (Bobby) graduated from Rose Bruford College in 2016 and kickstarted his professional acting career at the Belgrade Theatre. We’re super excited to start rehearsing with him; we start at the Old Vic Workrooms in just under two weeks and we can’t wait to get stuck in.”

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Tales of injustice like Ricky Jackson’s are far from a thing of the past, and in many cases are still going on today. “We want to focus on the stories of men and women who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes who are still in prison today, as well as the number of documented cases where people have been executed for crimes they never committed,” says Lucy. “Suicide rates are at an all-time high in our prisons and the fact that innocent men and women are serving their entire adult life in a cage is appalling.

“There’s definitely a growing shift in our collective attention to stories of injustice and wanting better in our world. The narratives presented in Netflix shows such as Making a Murderer and 13th are informing us of how historically and consistently, the institutions put in place to protect and serve us are in fact failing to do so. Since the late 60s and into the present day, the prison system in America has been used as a commodity to instil slave labour. Prisons are money making schemes for big businesses.

It Is So Ordered is a theatre piece which definitely actions itself in a similar vein to those shows, and theatre should be doing a lot more to represent these stories on its stages. We need to see the worst in order to want the better and the first step is getting people to hear these stories.”

It Is So Ordered is at the Pleasance from 5th-16th April.