Students Face Tough Truths in Defamation Experience Production

Defamation Experience poster

By: Evelyn Clark, 1L
Staff Writer


Washington and Lee undergraduates, law students, and faculty gathered on October 25th to watch a dynamic performance about the way the law interacts with issues of race, religion, gender, and class – the Defamation Experience. The play is a simple old-fashioned courtroom drama, executed by six talented actors. The subject is a civil suit: A South Side African American woman sues a Jewish North Shore real estate developer for defamation. The play sparked conversation that ranged from racial dynamics in the show to a broader look at the treatment of minorities in the United States

Dean Mason, Assistant Dean of Law Student Affairs, was instrumental in bringing the Defamation Experience to campus. She thought it would be beneficial to have this discussion in a different setting, with a more interactive and engaging event. “It is important that we have these discussions, especially with the current political landscape and policies that are being implemented.”

The play illustrates a dispute arising from a meeting between Ms. Wade, an advertising executive, and Mr. Gordon, a wealthy businessman. Through testimony, the audience discovers that Mr. Gordon arrived late to the meeting and emptied his pockets onto his desk – his wallet, keys, phone, and a sentimental watch from his grandfather. He is convinced that while he was out of the room on a phone call, Ms. Wade swiped his watch and took it home with her. Later he called and asked if she had seen his watch and asked her to check her bag. She was taken aback but checked her bag anyway. Mr. Gordon then called Ms. Jordan at the law firm who had arranged the meeting, telling her that Ms. Wade stole his watch and instructing Ms. Jordan not to use Ms. Wade’s business again.

Adding to the racial overtones, Ms. Wade is represented by a white man while an African American woman represents Mr. Gordon. The dynamic between the attorney, Ms. Jordan, and Ms. Wade is tense and telling, as Ms. Jordan commiserates with her over facing prejudice every day as an African American woman.

The legal issue is whether Mr. Gordon falsely accused Ms. Wade of stealing his watch and if this defamation caused her financial harm. Each attorney presents their respective case, after which the audience must direct the verdict. The “jury” deliberates, considering the many facets of the case – not just the legal facts and disputed events – but the role of race, class, and gender in the determination of events.

The Washington and Lee audience had a productive and sometimes controversial discussion in the Moot Court Room after the play had concluded and the jury was asked to deliberate. A number of undergraduate and law students, professors, faculty, and community members attended the event and all were engaged in the debate. After the “jury” held in favor of Ms. Wade, the actors opened it up to a more general discussion of racial dynamics in America.

The crowd was a combination of undergraduate and law students, faculty and staff, and members of the community. The post-show discussion was constructive and passionate, with attendees discussing the role that race and gender play not only in the show but in society. Law students were much more critical in their analysis of the legal aspect, while undergraduate students relied more on social policy.

Dean Mason expressed the need for an event like this, especially on our campus.

Washington and Lee is ranked #2,235 out of 2,718 schools for ethnic diversity on campus, with a student body composition that is below the national average. The office of admissions is attempting to increase the University’s diversity but is concerned that students of color find the school’s current lack of diversity ostracizing.

Lexington history and W&L’s lack of diversity made the post-show conversation dynamic, timely, and hopefully fruitful. Though the class of 2020 is far more diverse than previous classes at the School of Law, events like Charlottesville show that as a community and a nation there is far more work to do.

Categories: Community