An unusual collaboration takes an even stranger turn, thanks to the Supreme Court
The day playwright Michelle T. Johnson met reporter Mike McGraw, two firefighters died battling a blaze in northeast Kansas City. It seemed both sinister omen and uncanny coincidence. The two were sitting down to discuss Justice in the Embers, a play based on McGraw’s reporting on the 1988 explosion that killed six firefighters and landed five civilians in prison for life.
The play, a collaboration among the Center for Investigative Reporting, KCPT Channel 19, and the Living Room Theater, centers on the youngest of the five convicts: Bryan Sheppard, 17 at the time of the explosion, who remains in prison without possibility of parole.
Sheppard has been a source of some controversy over the past decade, due in part to McGraw’s reporting on the case for The Kansas City Star. McGraw was never fully satisfied with the government’s case against the defendants. The lack of physical evidence tying them to the crime concerned him. So did a summary of a 2011 Department of Justice report that listed two new, unnamed suspects. (Despite numerous requests, neither McGraw nor Sheppard’s attorney has been allowed to view the full, unredacted report.)
“I became fascinated with how journalists seek the truth compared with how courts seek the truth,” McGraw says. “I prefer the journalistic method.”
Johnson, who worked as both a lawyer and a reporter before coming to playwriting, chose to craft her play around whether Sheppard would get a shot at a resentencing. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that minors could not receive mandatory sentences of life without parole — seemingly great news for Sheppard.
But as with everything in the legal system: not so fast. Sheppard was sentenced years ago, and state courts have questioned whether the decision should be retroactive. An October 2015 challenge to the ruling made things even hazier.
“In the back of my mind, I knew that Supreme Court decision could come down at some point during the process,” Johnson says. “But I thought — eh, it won’t come down before the Kansas City show.”
Famous last words. On Monday, January 28, the court ruled that its decision was indeed retroactive. Which means: Sheppard will get a resentencing. Which means: The play needed major changes a week and a half before opening.
Johnson added a character and wrote two new endings that same day. The revised script was ready by the evening’s scheduled rehearsal.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Johnson admits. She estimates the play has gone through at least seven drafts since November. The director, Jenna Welch, recalls eight. But revisions are endemic to the process when you’re writing about real people and events. Welch tells me that each line Johnson writes goes through a formal legal review — at times, three different lawyers have consulted on the script — as well as an editorial review by McGraw.
“We’re using real people’s stories, and that’s a huge responsibility,” Welch says. “There’s no room for error.”
Adding to the pressure is criticism from some community members who feel the project will reopen old wounds. KCPT invited one of the most outspoken critics to air her concerns at a talkback after opening night. She called back and made a reservation.
Johnson welcomes the debate. “This isn’t trying to paint him [Sheppard] as some saint who got swooped up out of the choir,” she says. “The play is not about proving his innocence or guilt. The point is that whether he did do it at 17 — or, god forbid, if he didn’t do it at 17 — he’s done. Game over. And at what point is it good enough to say, ‘Let’s just move on,’ when we’re talking about people sitting in prison?”
To give voice to both sides, Johnson created new characters: two prison guards, one black, one white, with opposing views of Sheppard’s innocence. The invention turned out to be a premonition. Sheppard spoke to McGraw recently and mentioned that two of his guards — one black, one white — wanted to come see the play. Life imitates art, as they say.
“I think we’re going to comp them tickets if they come,” McGraw says with a smile.
Welch shakes her head no. Sheppard’s guards turned down the offer. They wanted to pay for their tickets themselves.