By 2017, Tina Satter's New York downtown theater company Half Straddle — which she had founded nine years earlier — had toured the European theater circuit and mounted productions at esteemed off-off Broadway theaters. But to pay the bills, Satter still needed to take temp jobs on occasion.
While she was — in her words — waiting for the phone to ring at a law firm where she was filling in as a receptionist, she read a New York magazine profile about Reality Winner, the 25-year-old National Security Agency contractor who had leaked a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the Intercept. Satter poked around on the internet and found the transcript of the FBI interrogation of Winner. As she read it, the theater director in her saw artistic potential in the document.
The language was reminiscent of theater
"I thought, this is a play," she says. So she made it into one — called Is This a Room.
The language reminded her of downtown theater. There was unmistakable tension: The FBI agents were pressuring Winner to confess while she attempted to evade their questions. Satter was also taken with the verbal tangents they embarked upon. In addition to remarks about Winner's fluency in Pashto, Dari, and Farsi there was talk about dogs, cats, and CrossFit. The seeming non-sequiturs and stutters and interruptions reminded her of the work of experimental playwrights like Richard Maxwell.
After Satter cast the play, she and the actors decided not to make changes to the transcript. "We were all like, we think this can hold," she says. "We almost treated it like Shakespeare. Like it was canonical." The actors learned every last verbal tic and stutter that had been uttered the day Winner was interrogated and arrested in Augusta, Georgia in June 2017.
Gender dynamics at work on stage
Satter's plays often feature strong female characters. Is This a Room not only stars a strong woman protagonist, but implicitly addresses gender dynamics. One of the first lines Reality Winner says to the agents is, "I want to make this as easy for you guys as possible." When they ask if there's a private space where they can conduct the interview, she describes a room in her house that she avoids. "Yeah, it's just creepy, it's weird, in addition to the kitchen it's behind the house and it's always dirty," she tells them.
The lead FBI interrogator, played by the actor Pete Simpson, selects that room for the interrogation.
The menace implicit in those words is highlighted in the staging. "We stand a respectful distance in the beginning," Simpson says. "But within the first two minutes, that distance cuts in half, and then it cuts in a quarter." It's hard not to come away with the impression that Winner is being hemmed in and threatened. Emily Davis, who stars as Reality Winner, says audience members have certainly come away with that impression during the play's off-Broadway run. "I've had women come up to me after the show after we did it at the Vineyard, like shaking," she told me, saying that they "felt so uncomfortable."
Life imitates art
Alisa Solomon is a longtime theater critic and a professor of arts journalism at Columbia University. She points out that Is This a Room has an internal dynamic that is reminiscent of the interaction between theater-goers and performers. In the play, the FBI agents are — through their words, demeanor, and staging — trying to coax Winner into confessing. Actors use similar tools to coax the audience into suspending disbelief. "All of those things are a kind of con," she points out, "that have some parallels to the experience that we have in the theater."
Solomon also sees a political message in the play. The document Winner leaked to the media site the Intercept detailed Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. As Winner says in the transcript, she thought the U.S. public needed to know that. "She committed a crime that she committed for a greater good," Solomon surmises.
Actor Emily Davis has exchanged emails and letters with Reality Winner. But she hasn't been able to meet her. The whistleblower was sentenced to five years in prison and she's now under home confinement. But Winner's sister, Brittany, was slated to be at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway on October 11, 2021, to catch the play on opening night.
This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer and adapted for the web by Alexandra Starr and Petra Mayer.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
On a sunny Friday afternoon in Rutherford County, Tenn., three police officers showed up at an elementary school. They were there to arrest four girls, all of them Black, who allegedly observed a playground fight that had broken out a few weeks earlier. In total, 11 children were arrested, some only for watching the fight and not stopping it. That's just one alarming story of what is a much bigger pattern of arrests and detention of children in Rutherford County. You see, in Tennessee, only 5% of children who are referred to juvenile court are detained. But in Rutherford County, that figure is 48%.
Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio and Ken Armstrong of ProPublica recently published an investigation into all of this. And Meribah Knight joins us now. Welcome.
MERIBAH KNIGHT, BYLINE: Thanks so much for having me.
CHANG: Can we just start with this incident that we described at this elementary school in Rutherford County? It was five years ago. I understand 11 children were arrested. What exactly happened? And what were these kids who were arrested charged with?
KNIGHT: Yeah. So there were four girls at the elementary school, like you talked about. They were charged with criminal responsibility, which turned out to not even be a real crime. What they were being charged with was criminal responsibility for the conduct of another for watching a schoolyard fight. I should actually correct myself. It's not even a schoolyard. It was off school grounds, but it was a scuffle. And they watched it. And they didn't intervene. And they were then charged with criminal responsibility.
CHANG: A fictitious charge known as criminal responsibility.
KNIGHT: Yeah. So it's a prosecutorial theory, but it's not an actual charge. So if you were going to use that, you'd say charge them with assault because they didn't intervene and someone was assaulted, which is obviously a very far stretch.
CHANG: And as your reporting shows, this isn't even an isolated incident, right? Like, this county has been arresting and detaining kids at a much higher rate than anywhere else in Tennessee.
KNIGHT: Yeah. So like you said, these arrests took place in Rutherford County, which, as our story outlines, had been illegally arresting and jailing kids for years, all under the watch of Judge Donna Scott Davenport. Judge Davenport is the only elected juvenile court judge the county has ever had. She's been in power since 2000. She oversees the courts. She oversees the juvenile jail. And up until this incident, she had directed police on what she called our process for arresting children. Basically, every child arrested, even for minor things like truancy, must first go to the jail, the judge told law enforcement.
CHANG: OK. So let's explain in more detail exactly how this is happening in Rutherford County. Not only are children getting arrested in part because of bogus charges like criminal responsibility, but they're being detained through - what kinds of justifications after those arrests?
KNIGHT: Yeah. So once the children are arrested and they had been brought to the juvenile detention center under the orders of Judge Davenport, they were then subjected to something called the filter system. And the filter system was a policy that was put in place by the jailer, Lynn Duke, that was catching so many children because the only mechanism that they had to decide if they're going to keep them was whether this child was a true threat. And...
CHANG: What's a true threat?
KNIGHT: It was never defined in the manual. It was open to interpretation. And you can see where that would be problematic.
KNIGHT: So it was these two policies in tandem - the fact that every child arrested was brought to the detention center, and then the fact that once they got to the detention center, they were subjected to this overly broad assessment of whether they should be kept. That created this dragnet for children.
CHANG: OK. So you have described these two forces that have contributed to this disproportionately high rate of children being caught up in the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County. I know that there has been a class action lawsuit that just got settled this past summer. What has changed then at all in Rutherford County as a result of that litigation?
KNIGHT: Well, the filter system has been stopped. A federal judge intervened and said, yes, this is illegal and it must stop. The arrest policy is not followed any longer by the sheriff's department or the Murfreesboro Police. So in that respect, the arresting and bringing children to the detention center directly has stopped. What did not change and, in fact, what went up were the children they were detaining from other counties. And they make money off of those children. So, in fact, while the injunction hurt the numbers for their own children coming through - and by hurt, I mean, they lessened them - what also did it to their benefit was callow them to market their facility to other counties. And their revenue began to surge.
CHANG: I mean, where do things go from here then? How do people bring greater accountability and oversight to Rutherford County?
KNIGHT: So the fact is is that Judge Davenport is still at the top of this. She is still overseeing the juvenile court of Rutherford County. The jailer, Lynn Duke, is still the director of the detention facility. And really, the only way for change to happen is for voters to speak. Judge Davenport is up for reelection this coming summer. If she has a challenger, maybe she could be voted out, but that's really the only option.
CHANG: Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio. Thank you so much for your tremendous reporting.
KNIGHT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.