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A 'MATTER OF HONOR' INDEED.

Byline: MICHELLE J. MILLS

>LA.COM

Michael J. Chepiga's "Matter of Honor" may be set in the 1800s, but the issues it raises are still quite relevant in today's society.

The production, having its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, is based on the experiences of Johnson C. Whittaker -- a cadet at West Point in the late 1800s -- and the racism and prejudice he experienced.

"It reminds us that people do discriminate against other people, and it's a story telling people where it started," said Cedric Sanders, who stars as Whittaker. "I think it's also important because it makes us aware of things that happened before. I think a lot of us today are uninformed about issues, uniformed about other people's stories of what had happened before, especially to young African-American men."

Whittaker, just the third black cadet at West Point, was given the silent treatment by his peers. He ate and studied alone during his time there and often was harassed by his fellow cadets.

He failed philosophy in his third year but was allowed to retake the course by attending a fourth year at the academy in 1880. Just before taking the test, he was found tied to his bed, beaten and slashed with a razor. The Army concluded that he had done this to himself so he could get out of taking the exam because he feared failure. He was court-martialed, but two years later the conviction was reversed on a legal point of evidence. Nevertheless, he was expelled from the academy.

Whittaker went on to become a teacher, a school principal and a lawyer. And despite his experience, he encouraged his family to join the military. Two sons became Army officers during World War I, and a grandson was a Tuskegee Airman.

In 1995, President Clinton invited Whittaker's family to the Oval Office and gave them gold attendance bars he should have received from West Point, along with his mother's Bible, which had been in an evidence locker for 150 years.

Chepiga, a lawyer in securities litigation and an award-winning playwright, heard about Whittaker's story from a former college professor.

"He said he always wanted to write a play about it, but he didn't think he would anymore, so he gave it to me as a gift," Chepiga said. "He said, 'Here, you should write this play.' "

Unable to find information on Whittaker, Chepiga set the story aside for several years. Then he came across a book on West Point history and found the information he needed. From there, he was able to find copies of The New York Times, where Whittaker's case was played out on the front page.

Chepiga focused on human nature to maintain a balance in "Matter of Honor." While racial discrimination is an important issue in the play, there are two sides to the story, and he has chosen not to take either.

"It's a human story, and whether I've done it fairly or convincingly, that's what people will see in the play," Chepiga said.

Sanders said Chepiga has done his job presenting a history story in a straightforward, nonbiased manner.

"I don't think I'd know the difference if he was a black playwright or a white playwright," Sanders said. "It's quite unbelievable how inside the story he seems to be. It's universal, that's the main thing. It's a play that everyone can go to and take something from it and understand this man's story as a whole, whether they believe he did it or not. And then they can reflect on where we are today in this society (regarding) racism and discrimination. Just take time to think what changed and what hasn't."

The cast and crew have worked hard to make "Matter of Honor" as authentic as possible. They have corresponded extensively with West Point to determine the correct drills from 1880, the proper salute and the right uniform. Military, fight and dialect coaches have been brought in as well.

"The theater is going to extreme lengths to get everything accurate," Chepiga said.

Sanders, who recently moved to Beverly Hills, said he has been affected by "Matter of Honor," and would move to New York if he had the opportunity to continue in the role. He hopes audiences also will be touched.

Michelle J. Mills (626) 962-8811,

Ext. 2128, michelle.mills@sgvn.com

MATTER OF HONOR

>When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 30.

>Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

>Tickets: $31 to $60.

>Information: (626) 356-7529. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Richard Doyle, left, Eric Lutes and Cedric Sanders star in the Pasadena Playhouse production "Matter of Honor." The play is set in the 1800s but explores still-relevant issues of racism and prejudice.
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 1, 2007
Words:803
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