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.

Film Review: Danny Wu Goes Back to Square One with a Crucial Michael Jackson Allegations Documentary

“Square One” is the Michael Jackson documentary we need now.

It has been a tough year for the worldwide Michael Jackson fan community in the wake of “Leaving Neverland”. With celebrities like Oprah Winfrey hopping onto Dan Reed’s bandwagon, and almost all mainstream media purposely stifling any voice in protest of the film, or even any voice of reason, many fans have been left feeling hopeless. A select few podcasters, YouTubers, and media personalities have created great content countering “Leaving Neverland” but, as of yet, nothing has truly managed to get mainstream, lasting attention. And while the fan community awaits Taj Jackson’s docuseries (you can donate here), that project is still a long ways off.

But the tide may be changing. Just this month, three documentaries have been released in support of Michael Jackson (all of which The MJCast team discuss in #TheMJCastEp108): “Chase the Truth”, “Lies of Leaving Neverland”, and most importantly, in my view, “Square One”, by Danny Wu. After viewing the film at its premiere in Hollywood on September 28, 2019, I believe that Wu’s film has the potential to be a game-changer. It is the film we need in these times.

To give you some background on Danny Wu: Based in Vancouver, Canada, Wu is a YouTuber and up-and-coming filmmaker who grew up as an MJ fan, but who watched “Leaving Neverland” and was convinced of Jackson’s guilt. He decided to create a YouTube video presented as a compelling “Did he or didn’t he?” investigation. However, in the course of Wu’s extensive research, he realized that the facts didn’t add up, and that there could be no way that Michael Jackson was guilty of his accused crimes. Over this time, he interviewed Taj and Brandi Jackson and developed close ties with content creator Liam McEwen (who produced one of the first “Leaving Neverland” rebuttal videos, “Neverland Firsthand”). These relationships would solidify Wu’s support of Jackson’s innocence as well as his dedication to getting out the truth about the allegations. I want to emphasize that Wu “walks the walk”. His efforts are not motivated by money or attention-seeking. In fact, he has donated all of his YouTube revenue from his Jackson-related videos to Taj Jackson’s docuseries, and he self-funded “Square One”. When we interviewed him on The MJCast, he specifically recommended that anyone who wants to donate to him should give their money to Taj Jackson instead.

One might have assumed that Wu would create a film examining the lies in “Leaving Neverland”, since that has been the big focus of this year. But he took a different approach. Wu saw a video of Jackson’s 2005 defense lawyer, Tom Mesereau, in which he spoke about how, if Jordan Chandler had been called to speak in that trial, there would have been a line-up of Chandler’s friends ready to tell the opposite story. Inspired by this idea, Wu decided that he needed to find one of these friends who would be willing to speak publicly. And, in doing so, he could potentially take every allegation “back to square one”, where it all started. By focusing on the 1993 allegations and the Chandler family, he could expose the lies at their root.

With this context in mind, it was with great hope that I attended the film’s premiere on September 28, held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It was hard to know what to expect for this event. Would the fans turn out? Would the film succeed in its goals? Wonderfully, Danny Wu’s “Square One” premiere was a night to remember, when the fan community came together to support a superb film that I believe will make a real difference. In attendance were all the stars of the film, including Danny Wu, Taj Jackson, Charles Thomson (investigative journalist and Legal Correspondent for The MJCast), Jenny Winings, Geraldine Hughes, and Josephine Zohny, who knew Jordan Chandler in college, had been on the 2005 trial witness list, and whose experiences with Chandler frame the film’s narrative. (More on that later.) The rest of the attendees represented a “who’s who” of the MJ community. It was an exciting, inspiring, and dynamic evening. Guest highlights included Tom Mesereau, Liam McEwan, John Ziegler, Tommy Organ, Thayana Sco Jackson, Edwin Costa (of @edwinsgeneration), filmmaker and podcaster Adam Green, actress Lori Petty, and many more. Fans had come from far and wide, with a few attendees flying from China for the event. There was a great energy, buzz, and a lot of love in the room in anticipation of the screening.

Now, onto the part you’re waiting for: So, how was the film?

“Square One” is a brilliant, professional, and entirely convincing film which will, in my view, speak both to fans and to a mainstream audience. When non-fans, or even casual fans, have asked me this year how to address the questions brought up by “Leaving Neverland”, I have found myself pointing to a lot of different resources, but they are typically overflowing with far more information than the average person is willing to sort through. Enter “Square One”, which is now the film to which I will direct people to understand the 1993 allegations and everything that would come after. The way in which it walks the viewer through a complex set of circumstances is impeccable: easy to absorb, concise, grounded in facts, and it lays the groundwork for precisely why things happened as they did, and how the 1993 allegations would set the stage for the Arvizo trial, Robson, Safechuck, and more. As Josephine Zohny says in the film, “Every allegation is built on the ’93 allegations”. By understanding the chain of events involving the Chandler family, the spider web of misfortunes that plagued Michael Jackson throughout the rest of his life are illuminated.

The structure of the film: First, I want to make clear that there are no surprise bombshells in this film. Serious fans will know this information already. (Though, for casual fans or non-fans, most of the facts presented in this film will be new and, I imagine, revelatory.) Its value is not in making new claims, but in presenting the information in the clearest way imaginable, and in doing so with authority. The film is framed by Zohny’s experiences with Jordan Chandler, with powerful interviews with Taj Jackson, Jenny Winings (who, like Zohny, was on the 2005 trial witness list), and Geraldine Hughes woven throughout the narrative. Caroline Fristedt also appears a few times, if briefly, and some archival audio from “Big Al” Scanlan is included. Danny Wu appears in the film to move the story along at certain points, though it is really Charles Thomson who serves as the film’s primary narrator. (It is worth noting that Thomson did not go into this project realizing that his interview would become so key to the film, and it is a testament to his encyclopedic mastery of this chronology that he can provide such a perfect explanation of the chain of events in two unscripted interviews.) Thomson essentially walks us through every step of the 1993 allegations, with the other interviewees highlighting key moments. The rest of the film is primarily made up of archival audio, video, articles and legal documents, which are all well-presented and well-edited. There is no feeling of a passionate “fan-made defense video” here. The information is serious, journalistic, grounded and credible. I particularly appreciate that the film immediately opens by clarifying a few major questions which seem to eternally emerge up in the Jackson allegation conversation: No child pornography was ever found at Neverland, and nothing was ever discovered during the extended, off-and-on investigation of Jackson by the FBI. The actual chronology of the film walks us through the history of the Chandler family, with a particular focus, of course, on Evan Chandler, and his growing rage. It establishes perfectly the sequence of events leading to Chandler’s extortion of Jackson and why Chandler filed a criminal report, when he clearly had had no intention of alerting authorities regarding the supposed abuse of his child. The film makes very clear, as well, why Jackson settled, and how this settlement never voided the possibility of a criminal trial if there had been any evidence to do so. Wu also addresses and clarifies La Toya Jackson’s support (at the time) of the allegations, Victor Gutierrez and Rodney Allen’s role in the fiasco, and concludes with a short section touching on the Arvizo case. The film’s greatest accomplishment is to put all these puzzle pieces together in a way that any viewer can comprehend. Once set in place, there is a sense of crystal-clear understanding that, as Geraldine Hughes says, “Michael Jackson was the victim of an elaborate extortion scheme which launched the allegations.”

Why Josephine Zohny? Zohny has been unfairly criticized by some people online, saying that she is not a credible source. I completely disagree with this. She, along with Jenny Winings, were on the 2005 trial witness list, and would have been part of that trial if Chandler had been brought into the case. Also, Zohny is not motivated by anything but telling the truth: She gave one statement when she was put on the 2005 witness list, but has never spoken publicly about her experiences otherwise. She has never sold her story, nor has she told conflicting or exaggerated tales. And, while it’s true that she was not a close friend of Chandler’s, just an acquaintance, she had interactions with him on multiple occasions when they were classmates together at NYU, and heard him make statements specifically related to Jackson. According to her, Chandler surrounded himself with MJ memorabilia and fan friends, and, upon the release of Martin Bashir’s “Living with Michael Jackson”, Chandler stated, in front of multiple witnesses, that Jackson was “not capable of the things he was being accused of”. In sum, Zohny has put herself in the spotlight at personal risk (she has had to deal with internet trolls and her professional website being hacked) in order to defend Michael Jackson, and I have absolutely no doubt that viewers will find her story compelling and credible.

The minuses: I have very few critiques of this film, which I hope will be widely shared across the global MJ fan community and far beyond, except to point out that it could have benefited from a bit more editing. Wu created “Square One” in just a couple of months, which is deeply impressive, so I am perfectly willing to excuse any slight imperfections. I personally wish that Charles Thomson’s narration wasn’t via a sometimes-crackly speakerphone, for example, but that is a small complaint. So many long-time fans have spent years exploring the issues around the Jackson allegations, but no one has managed to create anything quite like this, and I encourage every Jackson fan to come together to support this film in whatever way we can.

I’ll conclude with a few words from Tom Mesereau, who was interviewed by John Ziegler immediately after the film premiere:

“It’s a fabulous film. It is high quality. It was carefully investigated. It was condensed in a very professional attempt to find the truth, and it tells the truth. Michael Jackson was not a pedophile. He never should have been put through what he was put through, starting with the case in ’92-’93. And I commend Danny Wu and all of his people for the fabulous job they did, and I can’t wait to hear this circulating through society, because we live in very, very biased, troubled times. Michael Jackson was never a pedophile, never should have been accused as such, and his life was destroyed by greed, by people without integrity, by people without a conscience. This film starts the road back from some of the recent developments, which have been very troubling. [Wu] did a tremendous job in showing the truth.”

Let’s gather as a community to support this film and other quality content being released in Michael Jackson’s defense. This is our moment.

How to watch “Square One”:

October 5, 2019: Worldwide debut of “Square One” on YouTube.

London premiere: UK residents can attend a screening of the film on October 5th in London. Danny Wu will be in attendance, and possibly other stars of the film. Information here.

Learn more:

The MJCast’s interview with Danny Wu.

Danny Wu’s TwitterInstagram and Facebook pages.

Other episodes from The MJCast related to the allegations:

Episode 108 – Back to Square One

Episode 103 – Vindication Day Special with Larry Nimmer

Episode 099 – Leaving Neverland Q&A

Episode 095 – Leaving Neverland Roundtable

Episode 081 – Vindication Day Special with Aphrodite Jones

Episode 058 – Vindication Day Special (Pirates in Neverland: The Michael Jackson Allegations)

Episode 033 – Vindication Day Special with Scott Ross

Article by Elise Capron.