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.