The people who put socially conscious plays on Broadway usually like to stress how relevant their work is. The folks behind "A Time to Kill" may have more reason than most.
The courtroom drama, adapted from the best-selling novel by John Grisham, centers on the mid-1980s trial of a black man accused of killing the two white men who attacked his daughter. The cast went into rehearsals with the Trayvon Martin case fresh in their minds.
"It's something everyone in the cast has brought in with them as an example of how far we haven't come," says Ethan McSweeny, the director. "It resonates."
Sebastian Arcelus, who steps into the role of the ambitious lawyer Jake Brigance played by Matthew McConaughey in the film, says it was "jaw-dropping" to be working on the play in the aftermath of the Martin trial.
"Even though we've made so many strides as a nation and as a society, the same issues burn," he says. "As much as you want to think that justice is blind, it's just not that simple."
Grisham's fictional case and the very real Martin trial are very different — most obvious is the skin color of the defendant — but self-defense laws and race are prominent in both.
In the real case, neighborhood crime-watch volunteer George Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense when he killed 17-year-old Martin, an unarmed teenager, during a confrontation last year in Florida. Martin was black. Zimmerman has a white father and Hispanic mother.
Zimmerman's acquittal in July of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges sparked protests and calls for federal officials to charge him with violating Martin's civil rights. President Barack Obama even weighed in, saying the slain black teenager "could have been me 35 years ago."
In "A Time to Kill," an African-American factory worker called Carl Lee Hailey is on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. Temporary insanity is his defense.
Both cases involve the South — the book takes place in the fictional northern Mississippi town of Canton — and both ponder whether the outcome would be different if the races in the case were reversed.
"Obviously the circumstances and, in essence, the racial question is almost reversed in the context of our play," says Arcelus, "but you can't escape asking these questions as to what really is a murder case and what really is a race case and how are the two inextricably linked and what does that say about the true nature of justice being blind?"
Producer Daryl Roth, known for picking projects that have strong progressive social messages such as "Kinky Boots" and "The Normal Heart," championed Grisham's book before the Martin case but realized the significance of the real trial.
"It makes this piece not a slice of history as much as a timely story that has to be addressed," she says. "I think because it's so sadly in the news, it will bring thoughtful conversation."
Besides Arcelus, the rest of the motley cast includes Tom Skerritt, John Douglas Thompson, Fred Dalton Thompson, Patrick Page, Tonya Pinkins and Ashley Williams. The play opens Oct. 20 at the Golden Theatre.
Besides the Martin case, the play arrives on Broadway following a Supreme Court decision to neuter key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington and a mayoral election in New York where the police tactic known as "stop and frisk" is being prominently debated as racist.
"We've had some very rich conversations as a group about justice and race and where it's applicable in this story and how that's part of the incendiary mix of it," says McSweeny.
For Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee who ran for president in 2008, the play takes him back to his early career as a small-town lawyer in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., 20 years before the events of the play.
"No one my age can get to be my age without thinking about the past," says Thompson. "I think it's good for all of us to take us back every once in a while and remind ourselves the way things have changed."
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits