1987 Reviews for Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials

Marty Kohn's review published November 22, 1987 (used by permission of the author):


From more than 2,000 hours of testimony, statements and published reports playwright Arthur Beer has filleted a meaty two-and-a-half hour documentary drama about a Detroit murder trial that was, more significantly, a landmark civil rights trial. The results, if not prime, are at least choice.

"Malice Aforethought: The Sweet Trials," in a world premiere production by the Theatre Company, chronicles the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black physician. In 1925 Sweet and his family, seeking an escape from the ghetto, bought a house in a white neighborhood. When they moved in, a mob formed outside and stoned the Sweets' home. Shots were fired from the house; a neighbor sitting on a nearby porch was killed. The case became a cause celebre.

The 1920s are conjured up even before the play begins, as speakers softly crank out some of that era's recordings, among the more discernible of which are "Melancholy Baby" and "I Ain't Got Nobody." Melancholy is, of course, an understatement and the Sweets had somebody on their side. They had Clarence Darrow.

Beer the playwright wisely resists the temptation to focus on Darrow, even though Beer the actor plays the famed attorney. Instead, Beer focuses on everybody: Dr. Sweet, his wife, Gladys, and his brother Henry who fired the fatal shot; Darrow and the other defense lawyers; the prosecutors; the police and the neighborhood bigots who swore in court that all was peaceful on the night in question and the shots were unprovoked.

THE TRIALS -- there were two, the first ended in a hung jury -- and the play are a metaphor for race relations in America in the '20s and today. But "Malice Aforethought" is also about individuals: Darrow, still exhausted from the Scopes evolution trial, agreeing to undertake Ossian Sweet's defense; Sweet himself, a decent and scholarly man made bitter against his will; Frank Murphy, the judge in both trials, always giving the truth a break.

However, with so many characters (25) and only so much time, "Malice Aforethought" can't make all of its characters entirely interesting. This is where director David Regal pitches in, saddling a prevaricating policeman with a nervously bouncing left hand on the witness stand -- a liar's tic if there ever was one; giving another witness, a white neighbor who claims nothing was amiss in the neighborhood, a milquetoast voice, and casting as the chief prosecutor an actor (Harry E. Carlson) who looks like a younger version of "LA Law's" Richard Dysart.

Beer is a fine, flinty Darrow, always in command without overwhelming. Charles Anthony Jackson brings a skein of moral fiber to his Ossian Sweet, while Tim Rhoze is equally effective as Henry Sweet. David Berg as the weasely Milquetoast and David Bokas as the cop with the bouncing hand are standouts among a competent corps of actors.

MOST OF the play takes place in the courtroom and Beer has been assiduous about sticking to what was actually said. Unfortunately, court testimony rarely makes for great stage dialogue. If it did we'd all go to court instead of the theater. Still, we have to take history as it is and "Malice Aforethought" is not just Detroit history but American history. It's important to know that a "neighborhood improvement association" was really a group organized to keep black people out and did nothing to improve the neighborhood. (Ironically, the Waterworks Improvement Association, an actual organization cited in the play, held its meetings in the Howe School, named for Julia Ward Howe who wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic.")

"Malice Aforethought" runs long, but when it comes to a part of history that deserves to be more widely known, too much beats not enough every time.

The Theatre Company

Dr. Ossian Sweet: Charles Anthony Jackson
Henry Sweet: Tim Rhoze
Gladys Sweet: Jennifer Jones
Clarence Darrow: Arthur Beer
Walter White: Stanley Cahill
Arthur Hays: Ted Moniak
Schuknecht: David Bokas

A documentary drama in three acts by Arthur J. Beer. Directed by David L. Regal. Set and costumes by Melinda Pacha. Lighting by Mark Choinski. [...] "

Copyright (c) 1987 Detroit Free Press

This site made possible by a grant from the
Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs

1987 Performance
© University of Detroit Mercy A Catholic University in the Jesuit & Mercy Traditions
4001 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit, MI 48221-3038
Webmaster@udmercy.edu    Sitemap    Privacy Statement
Performance Schedule