Theater Review: “Never Ever Land” Explores the Michael Jackson Allegations Through a Problematic Lens

On October 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, I attended the final performance of the world premiere staging of the play “Never Ever Land”, written by Rider Strong, directed by Michael A. Shepperd, and produced by Andrew Carlberg. Several Michael Jackson fan community members were in attendance, including Charles Thomson (investigative reporter and Legal Correspondent for The MJCast), Angela Kande, “Square One” documentary creator Danny Wu, and others.

In the play’s press release, it is described as offering “a new perspective on one of the most notorious trials of all time, as well as our culture’s obsession with celebrity.” I was compelled by this, and very curious about how they would approach this issue, and what stance they would take regarding Michael Jackson.

While the play is based on the 1993 Jackson allegations, and the characters are representative of the members of the Chandler family, I want to emphasize that this is a fictional storyline. The facts about the family and the sequence of events are intentionally distorted. This is done, I assume, for the sake of artistic freedom, and perhaps also as protection from criticisms around accuracy–or lawsuits. And also because, ultimately, this play is not truly about Michael Jackson. (Except that it is also completely about him. I will explain my problems with this contradiction later.)

The show is, according to promotional materials, about the lasting effects on one family who has been “seduced by fame and greed”. Michael Jackson’s name is not uttered once through the entire production, though all transitional scenes use slightly warped, MIDI-style versions of Jackson songs, and he is referred to as “the White Whale” several times.

Looking at this play purely from a production standpoint, it has some merits: I found the acting to be powerful, and there was something compelling about the idea of a long-term implosion of family and identity because of the choices of the parents. However, I did not find the characters particularly sympathetic, even as the audience is supposed to connect with the trauma of the adult-version of the character based on Jordan Chandler, named here “Jacob Gable”.

The story alternates between two parallel timelines: We are taken back and forth between the ‘90s and a contemporary storyline set in 2012. I felt hopeful during the first half of the production, which focuses on how the parents fall into the world of celebrity. While they are pushing one son, “Tim”, to be in commercials and criticizing him for being overweight, they are pushing the other, “Jacob”, to secure a friendship with the unnamed, famous entertainer who never had a childhood. The mother is also trying to establish her own acting career, while the controlling, heavy-drinking, rage-filled dentist father is peddling his screenplay.

Opening the play, and woven throughout it, is the 2012 story about the adult Tim, who is trying to get a job with a tabloid journalism company, which is based on TMZ. He claims that he has absolute proof that his brother lied about the allegations. As a Jackson fan, this is, of course, attention-grabbing. It seemed that the play was moving in the direction of casting doubt on the allegations as a whole.

However, the second half of the play takes a very different turn. It veers from the allegations (and avoids making any statement at all about them, which will frustrate most fans) and puts complete focus on how the family has been damaged. It becomes clear that Tim is selling his brother’s secrets as a means to have a career and, finally, a life of his own. Jacob, the character based on Jordan Chandler, clearly has massive personal problems as an adult, but the play leaves the audience in the dark about the source of his trauma. And, ultimately, Tim reveals that there may not be any deep, dark secret, after all.

Naturally, I wanted to understand the production’s stance on the allegations. That was not to be. And I can accept that. Art is, after all, about exploring ideas, evoking emotion, and encouraging discussion. It is certainly not obligated to give its audience a clear answer or opinion on any particular topic. That said, I felt abandoned by the second half of the play, and left adrift, with no real understanding of what I should be taking away from the story, especially after the high-stakes set-up in the first half. Perhaps if I had connected more with the characters, it would have been more effective. In that scenario, I can envision an ending in which I would have understood the legacy of damage set off by greedy parents and bad decisions, and could have even accepted that the production chooses to leave its representation of the allegations so ambiguous. Yet, as is, the story fizzles into nothing, and seems to lose its purpose.

But here are my two primary problems with the play:

(1) I dislike the fact that this production directly exploits Michael Jackson, using his traumatic experience for its own gains, while simultaneously refusing to comment on that situation. I simply don’t think that is right. The playwright, Rider Strong, states that this is “the story of how one family was seduced by fame and greed”—but what does that mean, in this context? What is Strong really trying to say here? Ultimately, this just feels like Jackson being used all over again.

(2) Playwright Strong also comments: “I wondered what it’s like to be known as the victim in a ridiculously famous lawsuit, especially if most people think you lied.” Common, mainstream (and uninformed) perception is that Michael Jackson settled in the ‘90s because he was guilty. Where is this idea coming from that most people think that Chandler lied? And does this mean that the underlying message of the play is really that Jackson was guilty, and the Chandler was, essentially, a double-victim? I’m left perplexed by this, and uncomfortable.

In the end, the simple truth is that I don’t know what to make of this play. It acts as if it wants to make a big statement, without making that statement. Really, I feel that this production is about the playwright’s own childhood. Strong was a child star in the ‘90s, best known for his role on “Boy Meets World”. I completely understand that he would want to explore the effects of that warped coming-of-age experience. That makes sense. But using Jackson as a vehicle is not appropriate or merited, in my view. It adds to the exact problem Strong claims he is addressing. And that simply feels wrong.

This world premiere run of “Never Ever Land” has ended, but you can learn more, including information about possible future performances here.

Article by Elise Capron.

Episode 062 – They Didn’t Need an Expert to Say That

Jamon is back from his paternity leave, rejoining Q to co-host Episode 062 after a few months off. They are joined by recurring guest host and legal correspondent Charles Thomson, plus lifelong MJ fan Angela Kande. Charles and Angela discuss their recent visits to Santa Maria, Forest Lawn and the Jacksons’ 50th Anniversary Tour, before helping Jamon and Q dissect all of the latest MJ and Jackson family news.

After the news, Jamon and Q first delve into Angela’s fan story, where she shares some of her most vivid memories from the ‘frontline’ of MJ fandom in the 1990s and 2000s. In addition to attending the HIStory Tour in 1997 and the World Music Awards in 2006, Angela spent time at Michael’s hotels and other places he visited during his trips to the UK. She recalls the lows (like witnessing a photographer assault Michael outside a recording studio) and the highs (like bagging a seat right behind Michael at a London theatre) of her time spent in Michael’s orbit. She also discusses the origins of her spoken word poem ‘Legacy’, about the impact of Michael’s death on his fan community.

The hosts then turn their attention to Charles. Despite first appearing on the MJCast in Episode 002 and having been a frequent contributor ever since, Jamon and Q recently realised they had never asked Charles some of the key questions they usually ask guests during their first appearances on the show. What begins as a simple interview about Charles’ favourite songs, albums, videos and concerts turns into an emotional discussion about what Michael means to his fans – and the wider world – and how the fan community must fight for his legacy as his Estate allows it to crumble.

This episode marks Angela’s first ‘live’ appearance on the MJCast, although she did appear as one of Charles’ interviewees in his World Music Awards 10th Anniversary Special last year.

News

  • Michael’s Estate announces a one-off cartoon, ‘Michael Jackson’s Halloween’, featuring ‘reimagined’ versions of his music.
  • A 3D version of Thriller, plus the Making of Thriller documentary, are to be shown at the Venice Film Festival.
  • Producer Teddy Riley, a major contributor to Michael’s Dangerous album, discusses his time in the studio with Michael in a new two-and-a-half interview.
  • Remixed by Nick* has made a large number of his Michael Jackson remixes available for download.
  • Jimmy Safechuck’s posthumous demands for money over alleged abuse by Michael have been thrown out of court by a judge, and Wade Robson’s case looks set to follow.
  • Quincy Jones has been awarded more than $9million by a jury after he sued the Michael Jackson Estate for underpaying him.
  • An attempt by Frank Cascio to auction a CD of fake Michael Jackson songs for upwards of $50,000 has been called off – but the disc remains available for private sale.
  • Jermaine Jackson performs at the grand finale of BBC talent contest Pitch Battle.
  • Michael Jackson’s Thriller has been used as the soundtrack to the new trailer for Stranger Things – Season Two, after producers were eventually able to secure the rights
  • Michael Jackson’s Estate has granted Sony, a company Michael despised, continued permission to control the licensing of his music.
  • New transcripts from the class action lawsuit over the release of fake Michael Jackson songs reveal a judge has accused lawyers for Sony, MJJ Productions and the MJ Estate of throwing their co-defendants under a bus by conceding they may have been duped into selling bogus material.
  • Michael’s son Prince has produced a music video for Swedish singer Nano.
  • FIlmmaker Spike Lee has announced his latest Brooklyn Loves MJ street party.
  • The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles has added new Michael Jackson exhibits to its collection.

Main Discussion Topic

  • Angela and Charles’ fan stories

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If you have any thoughts, opinions, or feedback on the show, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at themjcast@icloud.com or find the links to our many social networks on www.themjcast.comKeep Michaeling!

Episode 044 – World Music Awards 2006 10th Anniversary Special

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When I realised that the 10th anniversary of Michael’s appearance at the 2006 World Music Awards was fast approaching, I contacted Jamon and Q to suggest they include a segment about it in an upcoming episode. They replied suggesting I should make my own stand-alone episode, over which I would have complete creative control. It was a scary prospect – I am far from being the techno-whizz Jamon is, and it’s fair to say my attempts to record and edit his episode have been haphazard. Two interviews had to be completely re-recorded due to technical failures, the causes of which I have yet to discern and doubt I ever shall.

But despite the technological trauma, this has been an exciting project. The awards ceremony – and its aftermath – have troubled me ever since they occurred. A few years ago I told my own story in a blog entry, so with this show I knew immediately what I wanted to do; interview others who attended the ceremony and let them tell their own stories.

For too long, the dominant story about the World Music Awards has been one which was simply not true. The lie that Michael was booed off stage has been immortalised in at least one substantial biography. My hope is that this show might become a reference point for those wishing to write about or investigate the event in the future.

This show retraces my blog entry to some extent, but includes brand new research, as well as excerpts from four exclusive interviews I have conducted in the last month. My interviewees for this show were Michael’s former manager Raymone Bain, his long-time photographer Harrison Funk, and two long-time UK fans, Angela Kande and Greg Spinks.

Each was incredibly candid and generous with their time, for which I am extremely grateful. Some of their revelations and observations are really very poignant – particularly Raymone’s story about trying to find somebody who would present Michael with his award, which paints a truly sad picture of Michael’s post-acquittal existence. A lot of these stories are ones I have never heard told anywhere else. The interviewees do not all share the same recollections on certain matters, but where they contradict one another I have ensured both points of view are reflected.

All four contributors were incredibly engaging and any one of their interviews could have been released in full on its own merit (but for the extensive damage inflicted on the audio by my ham-fisted recording efforts). Some brilliant stories and observations were sadly left on the proverbial cutting room floor, purely because they diverted from the trajectory of the episode (or because I didn’t record them properly).

Perhaps on the 20th anniversary of the ceremony I will release a director’s cut. Or perhaps, as a homage to Sony, I’ll wait and release the 20th anniversary re-release on the 23rd anniversary, with no new content at all, and in inferior audio quality, with all the best bits of Raymone’s interview remixed by Pitbull so they don’t make sense anymore.

I hope you all enjoy the episode. Let’s spread some truth.

Huge thanks to Jamon and Q for this amazing and exhausting opportunity.

Charles Thomson.

Links

Harrison Funk is releasing a 10th anniversary World Music Awards photo box set, containing several exclusive images he took at the ceremony. Anybody wishing to contact him about purchasing one can do so via the email form at www.harrisonfunk.com.

Angela Kande is the author of ‘Legacy’, a spoken word poem about the Michael Jackson fan community, which can be found here.

Charles Thomson’s original blog about the World Music Awards can be read here.

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Episode 034 – June 25th Special feat. Kevin Stea

Episode 034 - June 25th Special feat. Kevin Stea Show Art

Seven years ago today on June 25th, 2009 the King of Pop, Michael Jackson tragically and unexpectedly passed away amidst preparations and rehearsals for his final live concert tour, This Is It. For fans around the world, the pain still lingers on… It’s times like today the fan community comes together to remember, honour and reflect on the magical life that was Michael Jackson’s and the love and timeless art he gave to the world.

Joking on the set

World renowned dancer, singer, actor, model, director and choreographer Kevin Stea joins us on this special episode to celebrate Michael’s life and to reflect on his time working with the King of Pop. Kevin collaborated with Michael on the Black or White and Blood on the Dance Floor short films and also the MTV 10th Anniversary Special. Not only has Kevin worked with Michael Jackson but he’s also worked extensively with other industry luminaries such as Prince, Madonna, Rihanna, George Michael, David Bowie, Lady Gaga and many, many more.

Following a conversation with Kevin, Q, Jamon and guest host Paul Black explore Paul’s experiences in Los Angeles prior to Michael’s death in 2009 and during the week leading up his Memorial before handing over to some of our listeners to discuss how Michael should be remembered. Thank-you to all contributors who submitted audio. We are also honoured to have been able to use this episode as a way to debut a beautiful spoken word poem by Angela Kande Forever and the brand new Remixed by Nick* Michael Jackson track Jam (Nick* Redux).

For fans who are struggling during this time of year, we hope this episode acts as a way for you to connect with other MJ fans around the world. In this episode there are moments of joy and moments of sadness, but through it all, remember that we are all fans of Michael. We will carry on his message of love and positivity as a way of honouring his memory and everything that he gave to the world. Together we will Michael on.

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If you have any thoughts, opinions, or feedback on the show, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at themjcast@icloud.com or find the links to our many social networks on www.themjcast.comKeep Michaeling!

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A 2016 piece by artist and Michael Jackson collaborator Nate Giorgio.