In 1913, a young black man, named Lee Johnson, was accused of killing prominent San Antonio physician, Dr. Augustus Maverick, a grandson of the legendary politician Samuel Maverick. So many citizens were outraged by the shooting that 1,500 people packed the two-story courtroom at the Bexar County Courthouse where the trial took place a few months later. The judge had to hide the defendant to protect his life.
This tragic incident inspired San Antonio lawyer and playwright Lee Cusenbary to write “The Balcony,” an original play focusing on the Johnson trial. It will premiere tonight in the Cellar Theater, the smaller performance space of the Public Theater of San Antonio (San Pedro Playhouse).
“I was originally asked to write a show for the Bexar County Family Justice Center (BCFJC) gala that was to honor (County Judge) Nelson Wolff for his work on preventing domestic violence and helping the Family Justice Center,” said Cusebary, whose day job is general counsel for Mission Pharmacal . “I am a big fan of Nelson Wolff for all his work in San Antonio, with the Tobin Center, the restoration of the river and so much more. I thought I would honor him by writing a play about a trial and probably the most famous trial in the history of the Bexar County was this one, since Dr. Maverick was one of the leading citizens at the time… Another reason I wanted to focus on a trial is that Tracy Wolff (Nelson’s wife) spent so many years working on the restoration of the courthouse.”
Cusenbary already had an established relationship with the Family Justice Center because he had written several previous shows for the nonprofit’s fundraisers, mostly lighthearted musicals. But this time, the group canceled the production just a few days before the gala because the play “was too serious and too real.” They wanted lighter fare.
Fortunately, the Public was willing to put it on stage in honor of Black History Month. It will be performed again in May during the peak of the Tricentennial celebration.
What makes the story behind the shooting interesting is a set of curious and never fully explained circumstances. According to Cusenbary, who thoroughly researched his subject matter, Lee Johnson worked as a gardener in Dr. Maverick’s household and was on friendly terms with his employer. Also employed by the Mavericks was a young German woman named Fena Nussbaum. Cusenbary believes that Lee and Fena became lovers. Without revealing too much of the story, we can say that the events that unfolded on that tragic night in the Mavericks’ house involved a ladder, a nocturnal visit, a gun, and a confused situation in the dark stairwell.
In the play, Walter Sanders portrays Lee, Kimberlyn Askins is Fena, and Grant Bryan is the zealous prosecutor Sidney Overton. Others in the cast include real-life judge Philip Kazen appearing as the judge, Robert Mortiz as the medical examiner and John Heller as the bailiff.
Cusenbary has been writing original shows and supporting the San Antonio thespian community for quite some time. He is probably best known for his “Ethics Follies” parodies of Broadway musicals presented every year as part of a lawyers’ conference sponsored by the local chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. Ethical issues are entertainingly woven through the shows’ plotlines. He received the ATAC Globe Award for Best Original Script for “Men of Eastwood” produced at the Carver Community Cultural Center.
“The Balcony,” Feb.27 and 28, Cellar Theater, The Public Theater of San Antonio. For tickets call box office 210-733-7258. Very few are left but there are always cancelations. The play will be performed again in May.
Photos (from top): Walter Sanders; KImberlyn Askins