It was a story about a Dominican guy called J who immigrated to uptown Manhattan in 1991. You can describe J as a working person, he has spent most of his life as a manual labour. J has a family. He lives in a two bedrooms apartment with his wife, two daughters and a stepson.
One day, J went into madness, he took a kitchen knife, threatened his wife and locked her in the bedroom. The stepson realized and called the police. When J saw the officers at the front door, he broke though the window, covered with blood, climbed to the edge of the building and proclaimed that if any cop approaches him, he will have a great leap forward and end his life.
Several months later, I met J at room 45 of the New York State Criminal Court. That day, he was surrounded by whole bunch of people: the police, the judge, the lawyer, the witnesses and the jury. The courtroom was a theatre. Within it, there was a plot, a set, actors/actresses, a director, a crew of technicians and J was the leading actor—the centre of the play—a baffling subject of research.
The play was divided in to three parts: The first was a doctor sitting on the witness seat, explaining how J’s wife was heavily beaten, and the degree of distress while she was in the hospital. The second witness was the stepson who had a bitter relationship with J and described him as the most evil person in the neighborhood. The last part was a NYPD detective, who dealt with J at the crime scene, recounted how mentally disturbed J was and the process of his arrest.
In each part, the lawyer and the prosecutor acted as the interpreters of truth, by asking questions to the witnesses and making speeches, they built up their own interpretations and discourses toward the mystical event. By saying ‘sustained’ or ‘overruled,’ the judge was the person that controls the rhythm of the play, the flow of language. He decides at which moment a person should speak and at which point he/she should stop. What was left for the jury, the silent partners, was more about choosing an explanation of reality rather than seeking for truth.
What was ultimately peculiar about the whole process was that every performer was talking about J, or doing something related to J, but at the same time ignoring the fact that he was right in the room.
Since then, I often thought about J, his crime and his unfortunate future. I thought about how the justice system became a mystified part of the society by its legal terms, complicated process and legislation. Eventually, the court is nothing but a ritual fulfilling a basic need of the society—to cope with its internal tension and conflict, by defining the borderline of what are legal/illegal, moral/immoral and social/anti-social.
The play about J was left in an open ending because I didn’t wait until the announcement of his sentence. But I was really certain that this would be a fuck up ending. Firstly, was because he had a lousy lawyer. Secondly, was because he belongs to a social group that provides the major labour force to prisons and other related institutes.
The play about J, is particular and at the same time universal: it is about a person’s struggle dealing with poverty, hostility, violence and freedom of choice in a free society.