Resolving conflict at the dinner table
Ayars Hemphill as Faith, singing her internal monologue.

Resolving conflict at the dinner table

Rock River Players highlight themes of restorative justice in benefit performances of ‘Justice? Just Us’

BRATTLEBORO — Restorative justice will be on center stage with Justice? Just Us, a musical dramatic production, an original work by Dan DeWalt, who describes the performance as “an exploration of how restorative justice can transform conflict and help to heal those who have been harmed by it.”

The play combines scripted action, improvisation, music and songs to “present the vast array of emotions and intricacies of feeling that most of us prefer to leave unacknowledged in our daily lives,” according to DeWalt, the founder and executive director of Restorative Community Justice of Southern Vermont, which was approved by the IRS as a tax-deductible charity in 2017.

Proceeds from the show benefits the nonprofit, which has trained the actors so that the audience “will get an accurate picture of what restorative practice actually involves,” DeWalt writes in a news release.

The show was first performed by the Rock River Players in 2018 at the Williamsville Hall. Most of the actors in this week's show are members of the troupe, based in Williamsville. Music is performed by DeWalt.

Besides what DeWalt describes as “the music and action that one would expect from a play,” Justice? Just Us also gives the audience a peek at the restorative process at work.

According to the RCJSV's website, unlike criminal justice, which answers the questions, “Who did it? What law was broken? What is the punishment?,” restorative justice asks a series of different questions: “What happened? Who was harmed or affected, and how? What amends can be made?”

The model is derived from Native American culture and emerged in the 1970s. Today, more than 30 states “have committed to restorative principles through policy-making and legislation,” according to the site.

In a 2016 news story in The Commons, the nonprofit originated from a restorative justice program implemented at Leland & Gray Union High School in Townshend, where DeWalt has taught woodworking for a number of years.

“I saw it was effective,” he said. “The kids had an opportunity to be listened to. They were amazed. But, they had to listen to others, too.”

“This is so much of the problem: People aren't listening to each other,” he said.

At the dinner table

The production features Mike Kelly, Miriam Albee, Ayars Hemphill, and Tino Benson as family members, Louis Vitale as a fiance standing on shaky ground, Miles Anton and Paul Rodrigue as restorative practitioners, and Jon Mack as the rhyming interlocutor.

The production “delves into racism and xenophobia in America today, as experienced through events involving one family: what might have been a lovely dinner to meet a fiance turns into an ugly confrontation that has the potential to poison everyone's relationships and destroy their ability to function and communicate with each other.”

“While the family patriarch is staunchly conservative, fully in support of the current administration and their draconian efforts to impose their idea of order, the restorative process reveals that things are not so simple,” DeWalt said.

The play includes an element of improvisation. “Every night is usually a little different as there are different things that can come up to move a knotty problem forward,” he said. “So conceptually, it is the same. In its presentation, there is always some variation.”

One constant, however, is a theme that many people are finding in their own families and their own dinner tables in an era of political polarization.

“Good people with honorable intentions can find themselves on opposite sides of an issue without any way to bridge the gap between them,” he said. “Sound familiar, America?”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates