HBO Max is supporting local theater in its recent genre bending docuseries, Mind Over Murder. Of all the arts, theater has a unique relationship with public memory. Mind Over Murder is a six-part series about a gruesome murder and a play put on by local actors about the trial. Director Nanfu Wang’s past documentaries have also interwoven the public, private, and memory. One Child Nation focuses on China’s one child policy, while looking at Nanfu’s own experience as a mother. Hooligan Sparrow is about sexual assault through the lens of Nanfu’s childhood experiences with sex workers. Mind Over Murder covers the creation and performance of a play along with the trial and exoneration of the Beatrice Six. An exoneration due to DNA evidence and improper police conduct. The victim’s family formed a close relationship with the original investigator. Along with many residents of Beatrice, they maintained the guilt of the Six.
The docuseries is loosely structured into three parts. The first two episodes start with Burt Searcey, the original investigator of the Six. Currently a flower shop owner, he’s still a paragon of Beatrice. Episodes three and four focus on the Beatrice Six; their lives, their conviction, and their exoneration. The last two episodes are about mistakes made in the original investigation, plus show night for the play, Gage County, Nebraska.
Theater has a long history of avoiding censorship with artistic license to rehash social issues. Rehashing the murder of Helen Wilson and the trial of the Beatrice Six was widely rejected by the inhabitants of Beatrice. One facebook user said that the actors of the Community Players Theatre were just as bad as the Six who murdered Helen Wilson. One said the same thing that happened to Helen should happen to them. Helen Wilson’s family sat front row during the play. After the exoneration the Beatrice Six were awarded 28.1$ million from Gage County. Money that the county did not have. Most of the audience paid higher taxes because of six characters on stage.
It’s clear from everyone they had a bad reputation before the murder. The seedy character of the Six was the initial reason they were under investigation. Three Beatrice residents in a barber shop question why they were awarded so much more money in the civil suit than they would have made outside of prison. Public opinion about the trial played out through its own hometown characters.
Cecilia Rubino directed Gage County, Nebraska. We spoke about the play as an act of performative therapy. The performance attempted to be as realistic as possible, taking dialogue straight from the interrogation tapes. Simultaneously, Cecilia says that at the heart of the therapy is an escape from objective truth. The product is a performance of a marginalized perspective, heard from a human voice.
Cecilia emphasized that Gage County, Nebraska was an exercise, not an attempt to change the narrative. Elsewhere director Nanfu Wang spoke about being wary of the power she has as a documentary filmmaker to rewrite communal history. Helen Wilson’s grandson, Stan Wilson, was one of the family members who attended the play. In the last episode, he spoke about having to feel the Six’s innocence before believing it. During Gage County, Nebraska he felt it. I was struck by what theater was revealing about how deeply the non-rational shapes history.
Mind Over Murder explores the scale of performative therapy on an entire county. Cecilia and I spoke about how difficult it is to find funding for theater. HBO’s support of Gage County, Nebraska is a major endorsement of the artform. It’ll be interesting to watch new genres emerge, with further collaborations between streaming platforms and theater.