It is 1960. Kennedy and Nixon are facing off for the White House as sit-ins spread throughout the South. In Buffalo, New York, one of the city's few black women lawyers is locked in the courtroom fight of her life. No one doubts the woman the press calls the "Negro Lizzie Borden" is guilty of killing the woman for whom she works. But if Temple Scott is to keep Mae Lou McKitchen out of the electric chair, she must uncover the truth behind the crime. Murder, you see, is always a Matter of Intent . . .
Matter of Intent, A Drama in Two Acts
2009, The Writer's Den, Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-0-578-02510-0 128 pages, $15.00
From the Ujima Company World Premiere--Left to right: Lorna C. Hill (Temple), Rahwa Ghirmatzion (Mae Lou), Mary Moebius (Kate), Willie Judson (Dr. Wyatt), Dan Walker (D.A. Caster), and Phil Knoerzer, Director
ARTVOICE: Theater Week by Anthony Chase
Gary Earl Ross's new play, Matter of Intent, is a Perry Mason style drama, complete with courtroom histrionics and melodramatic plot twists. At its heart, however, is something more. The Perry Mason of this play is a compelling character, Temple Scott, a black woman struggling to make a living as an attorney in Buffalo, New York of the early 1960s. As in the Perry Mason television series, this play wears its moral themes on its sleeve, but to very different effect from those shows of the pre-Vietnam war era. Indeed, Ross uses the well-worn cliches of television courtroom drama in ways that subvert them winningly. Temple Scott's dedicated pursuit of truth and justice is hampered by the obstacles she faces as a black woman. This makes for a pleasing dynamic as each new challenge offers her the opportunity to use her superior intellect and uncanny insight. Moreover, the playwright uses his heroine's sex and race to demonstrate how different life experiences can give us different insights. Temple Scott's life has made her better equipped to defend her client than a white male attorney might be. In fact, she is unable to resist the case, even though the accused cannot pay her fee. Lorna C. Hill makes hay with the role, rendering a woman who is worthy of her own continuing television series.
In the play, Temple Scott's roommate, Bobbie Nichols (played by Jermain Cooper) brings the new custodian from her school home for dinner. It turns out that the young man's sister, Mae Lou McKitchen, is the suspect in the brutal murder of her socialite employer, a crime that has inspired the press to dub her "the Negro Lizzie Borden." Lizzie Borden, of course, was white and managed to get herself acquitted. Seeing no such future for Miss McKitchen, Temple Scott takes on the case.
The playwright intersperses the chronological telling of his story with flashbacks that reveal the characters' memories to be flawed, or which show episodes outside of any of the living characters' knowledge. (E)very character harbors a past that motivates his or her actions in ways that would have been impossible to depict on television in 1962. The victim's husband is concealing an affair. The victim, herself, has secret reasons for not joining her husband on his business trips. There are hidden reasons that Scott's planned defense of her client upsets Bobbie Nichols. The dead woman's best friend is a frenzy of mixed emotions and motivations. These undercurrents lend an intriguing element of unpredictability to the proceedings.
Each of the characters is compellingly played by members of a superior ensemble. Lorna Hill heads the company with a perfect performance as Scott; alternately feisty and sensitive, she is every inch the leading lady. Jermain Cooper gives a clear and finely motivated performance as Bobbie. Rahwa Ghirmatzion is wonderfully affecting as the damaged and guileless Mae Lou McKitchen. Mary Moebius is excellent as the doomed Kate Wayborn, a woman whose goodness and dignity conceal her private needs in a way that the women's liberation movement would soon render obsolete. Kevin Costa does a fine job as her husband, and walks the line of dubious innocence—critical to every whodunit—to perfection. Michele Ninacs gives a marvelously well contoured and comical performance as socialite Charlotte Donnelly. Dan Walker allows the district attorney's smugness to give over to complicity in a performance that arches brilliantly. Willie Judson gives a convincing performance as psychiatrist Fletcher Wyatt, a man with passionate convictions and dignified libido. Dwight E. Simpson, good as always, is excellent as Mae Lou's Uncle Lucky, a monster of a man who, nonetheless, looms heroic in the girl's memories. Donald Capers does very well as Mae Lou's well-intentioned, but dim-witted brother. Even in very small roles, Jean-Claude Wouters (Sandy Wayborn) and Dennis Keefe (the judge) excel.
The playwright has a fine sense of drama, and an excellent command of both character and comedy. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time.
BUFFALO NEWS: Benjamin Siegel
Mae Lou is found kneeling over her boss' bloody, dead body. . . By all accounts, Mae Lou McKitchen, a young black house keeper of limited intelligence and staggered speech, appears guilty of murder. . .
But did she commit the crime? "Matter of Intent" is an account of a crime without a witness, a society without perspective, and a criminal-justice system that is anything but just. . .
Lorna C. Hill plays Temple Scott. She's rough, she's determined, and she's going to win her case. She is the opposite of Mae Lou, played so finely and with much tenderness by Rahwa Ghirmatzion. (Scott) is the black woman who prevailed and made it in her profession, becoming one of a handful of local black female attorneys.
Yet she faces opposition from the D.A. (Dan Walker), who slyly tries to convince Temple not to take the case. . . "It's a murder, not a civil rights sit-in," he says. (T)he idea that the American legal and penal systems are not remotely fair is one worth raising at every chance.
The Director and Cast of the London Production of Matter of Intent