Gary Earl Ross discusses personal, political, and societal inspirations of his new play, The Trial of Trayvon Martin
When Kurt Schneiderman wanted to do a play in support of Black Lives Matter, he turned to Buffalo’s own Gary Earl Ross. Ross just so happened to have the piece the theater needed: The Trial of Trayvon Martin. There was just one problem—it was in the form of a short story instead of a play.
“I never planned to write a play based on that story,” said Ross in an interview with Subversive in early March.
Ross had written The Trial of Trayvon Martin in one draft almost immediately after Zimmerman’s verdict as part of a short story collection he is working on, but when the idea of making it a play came around he “had to change things considerably.”
The inspiration for the short story, and ultimately for the play, came from the real life story of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and the real emotion Ross felt as a result. For those unaware, Martin, a black seventeen-year old, was walking home one night in 2012 when Zimmerman, a half-white half-Hispanic adult, began stalking him and eventually started a confrontation in which Zimmerman shot and killed Martin; however, Zimmerman was ultimately found not guilty due to Florida’s stand-your-ground law.
“I wrote [The Trial of Trayvon Martin] because I was angry about the trial and all the other stuff with George Zimmerman,” said Ross. “I was angry. I was angry as a black man. I was angry as a father of three black boys and two girls […] I was angry that you could stalk a child, kill the child, and walk away from it.”
Ross wrote the play (based on his short story) in two weeks despite admitting that he did not want to write “another courtroom drama.” His last play, Mark of Cain, as well as his 2005 play, Matter of Intent, were both courtroom dramas. However, there was no way to avoid returning to the genre in light of the real life events on which Ross based his latest play.
Ross wasn’t sure exactly how much time went into researching the play because, as he put it, he’s “constant research mode” and already had some background legal knowledge from Matter of Intent. However, new research was also important.
“Research on the stand-your-ground statuette was absolutely necessary,” said Ross.
Stand-your-ground—which essentially permits people to kill their attackers rather than retreat if they feel threatened—was the main defense Zimmerman used to receive his not guilty verdict. Ross said that while he is “a firm believer in self-defense,” some of the applications of the law he came across in his research were “ridiculous,” such as a man who chased someone down, shot and killed them, and still successfully used stand-your-ground. Ross also pointed to the racial disparity of the law’s application, which allows one in six white people to escape conviction, but only one in one-hundred blacks.
Aside from the anger Ross felt, he also felt sorrow. When researching the case, Ross said he felt sad seeing some of the less progressive reactions of people on-line, such as those who maliciously claimed that Martin deserved to die because they believed Zimmerman’s erroneous claim that Martin may have been trying to rob the neighborhood.
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Biography (Courtesy, http://www.angelfire.com/journal/garyearlross/Books.html)
Gary Earl Ross, a retired UB/EOC language arts professor, is the author of more than 200 published short stories, poems, articles, op-ed articles, scholarly papers, and public radio essays. His works include the short story collections The Wheel of Desire (2000) and Shimmerville (2002), the children’s story Dots (2002), the novel Blackbird Rising (2009), and the stage plays Sleepwalker (2002), Picture Perfect (2007), The Best Woman (2007), Matter of Intent (winner of the 2006 Edgar Allan Poe Award from Mystery Writers of America), Murder Squared (2011), The Scavenger’s Daughter (2012), The Guns of Christmas (2014), and The Mark of Cain (2016). Ross’s plays have been performed in Buffalo, NY; New York, NY; Rochester, NY; Bend, OR; Knoxville, TN; Spring Lake, NJ; Atlanta, GA; Kamsack, Saskatchewan, Canada; West Sussex, England; Manchester, England; London, England; Shanghai, China; Manipal, India; and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Ross edited Nickel City Nights (2008) and co-edited (with Gunilla Theander Kester) The Empty Chair: Love and Loss in the Wake of Flight 3407 (2010) and The Still Empty Chair (2011). Coming soon from Black Opal Books is Nickel City Blues, the first Buffalo-based Gideon Rimes mystery. In addition to the Edgar, Ross’s honors include three Emanuel Fried Outstanding New Play Awards, a LIFT Fiction Fellowship, a Saltonstall Foundation Playwriting Fellowship, an ASI/DEC Fiction Grant, public radio commentary awards from the New York Associated Press and the New York Broadcasters Association, and numerous awards for teaching or professional, university, or community service. A member of the Just Buffalo Literary Center, the Dramatists Guild of America, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the National Writers Union, Ross has written, directed, or acted in plays for Ujima Company, the Subversive Theatre Collective, New Phoenix Theater, Road Less Traveled Productions, and the Towne Players.
“Who tries to rob someone when he’s holding iced tea and Skittles?” asked Ross, rhetorically.
Ross, as with the rest of us, wasn’t there that night and doesn’t know exactly what happened between Martin and Zimmerman. Ross said that he believes both Zimmerman and Martin may have been a bit insecure. Zimmerman was insecure enough to stalk a teenager and flash a weapon at him; Martin was insecure enough to not just walk away. However, as Martin’s father says in the play, “I expect my son to act like a fool sometimes because he’s seventeen. Grown-ass men are supposed to know better.”
This play, like Mark of Cain, deals with race and guns, both of which Ross says are an integral part of American culture. Ross is a black man who likes to go target shooting, so certainly issues of racism and guns are a big part of his life personally.
“Race is our nation’s original sin,” said Ross, citing slavery, Native American genocide, Japanese internment, and Jim Crow laws.
Ross said mainly he’s interested in America from the viewpoint of a contemporary American writer, and so it’s no coincidence that race and guns come up repeatedly.
Ross says this play is important to him because he’s had police pull guns on him twice in his life, once when he was fourteen walking by the train tracks with his friends, and once when he was fifty, checking on his elderly neighbor whose alarm had gone off. Zimmerman was not a police officer, but Ross still understands some of the feeling Martin must have had that night. Ross, for his second experience, instantly thought of Amadou Diallo who was shot forty-one times while reaching for his wallet back in 1999.
“I could have been shot,” said Ross.
However, Ross also said that he realizes that the lives of police officers are important as well, as his son is a police officer who was injured in the line of duty.
“My son […] is a police officer in Florida and he told me when Zimmerman was on trial, not far from where he serves […], that [Zimmerman] was going to get off. I said, ‘How do you know that?’ and he said, ‘because this state is going to get him off.’”
Ross says that while his play has a message, it’s really about the story. As he put it, it’s not for any particular audience, but rather “for a human audience,” whichever part of humanity a person fits into. He acknowledges different audience members may have different reactions based on their own life experiences. However, one thing Ross hopes everyone can take away from this play is the idea that our society should not normalize whiteness at the expense of other races. Ross told a story of how he had a story he wrote rejected by an editor in part because the editor was surprised to learn only towards the end of the story that the characters were not white, as she had erroneously and baselessly assumed.
“We live in a culture where white is normal,” said Ross. “That’s what I want to change.”
Ross has been involved with Subversive Theater since 2013 and we are proud to present his latest play, The Trial of Trayvon Martin. Performances are April 6 through May 6 with shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Tickets are $30, $25 for students, and, as always, Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. We hope to see you there!