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Arts center pulls plug on protest dance

The piece, inspired by a highly publicized Tampa crash that killed a child, sympathized with the man convicted of DUI-manslaughter.

By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2003

TAMPA -- The dance was to begin with a lone narrator, standing in a spotlight beam on a stage at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. His first words:

"What you are about to see is based on a true story."

After some 15 minutes of music, dance and drama -- about one of Tampa's most publicized tragedies -- the same narrator was to conclude with the words:

". . . this miscarriage of justice."

But on Tuesday, the dance was abruptly canceled. It was stricken from its three scheduled showings this weekend by Judith Lisi, the Performing Arts Center's president, in the first such cancellation she has ordered in 10 years on the job.

"I struggled over it," she said. "I decided I did not want to add to the pain."

The dance, entitled The Wheels of Misfortune, was meant to protest the 1998 conviction of Harold Vann of Lutz for DUI-manslaughter. A year earlier, at the entrance to Hunter's Green in New Tampa, Vann's pickup truck smashed into a Buick Regal carrying the wife and daughters of Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson. Katie Jackson, 11, was killed instantly and 6-year-old Elizabeth Jackson, now 12, suffered severe brain damage.

"I said, 'They're going to crucify that man,' " recalled choreographer Carmen St. Claire, who lives in Hunter's Green. "I just knew it."

Last year, after a chance meeting with Vann's brother, Ralph, Mrs. St. Claire took up Harold Vann's cause. She has organized vigils in Lutz and pickets outside Hunter's Green.

Mrs. St. Claire conceived The Wheels of Misfortune in October when she heard local choreographers were being recruited for a show that would blend the talents of dancers with and without physical disabilities.

The Wheels of Misfortune became one of 10 dances in a larger production titled Wheels in Motion. The other nine dances still are scheduled to be presented Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon in the Performing Arts Center's Shimberg Playhouse.

Elizabeth Edelson, who organized Wheels in Motion, considered Lisi's decision to be censorship.

"We live in a country with freedom of speech, freedom of expression, particularly in art," said Edelson, in a frenzy of last-minute adjustments. "In a couple of weeks I'm going to look back at this and feel appalled at what people can tell you to do."

The part of Vann was to be danced in a wheelchair by 34-year-old Dwayne Scheuneman of St. Petersburg, who injured his spinal cord seven years ago diving into a swimming pool.

"It seems to me that someone should be allowed to express their point of view," Scheuneman said.

Lisi said The Wheels of Misfortune might have been acceptable if it focused on a case from another city, or from longer ago. And she said it might have continued unchanged if it had been a conventional production, renting one of the center's four theaters.

But Wheels in Motion, like many presentations in the small Shimberg Playhouse, was considered a partnership with the Performing Arts Center. That means Wheels in Motion received free rent and marketing, and will pay a portion of its gate receipts to the Performing Arts Center, Lisi said.

"I will not be a partner in what I think is wrong," she said.

Lisi said the only objections she had received to The Wheels of Misfortune came from two anonymous phone calls to the box office, and a newspaper clipping, sent anonymously to the center, that mentioned Mrs. St. Claire's plans.

Both Tom Jackson and his attorney, Henry Valenzuela, said they didn't contact the Performing Arts Center and didn't know who did.

"If I knew who was in on it, I would send 'em a dozen roses and kiss 'em," Jackson said.

Vann, 56, is serving a 161/2-year sentence in a minimum-security prison in the Panhandle.

Although witnesses disagreed whether Vann's traffic light was red or yellow when he entered the intersection, jurors were required to find Vann guilty simply if he contributed to the accident and was under the influence of alcohol. His blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.13; a person is presumed to be unable to drive safely with a level of 0.08 or higher.

But Vann's supporters question the accuracy of the blood-alcohol test, and think Debra Jackson caused the accident by turning in front of Vann's truck.

The Jacksons won a lawsuit against the Hunter's Green developer and community association, on the grounds that roadside landscaping obscured Mrs. Jackson's view. They were awarded $10.6-million. To end an appeal, the Jacksons recently settled the case "on a favorable and confidential basis," Valenzuela said.

The lawsuit jury found that Vann and the developer each shared 45 percent of the blame for the accident, while the community association was 10 percent at fault. Vann had been sued, but his insurance company settled with the Jacksons before the trial.

Several weeks ago, a judge dismissed a motion by Vann's attorney for a new criminal trial.

Mrs. St. Claire said she has visited Vann twice in prison to tell him about her efforts and to study the Bible.

"I don't think it's God's will that Harold Vann remain in prison for another 12 years," she said.

On Wednesday, she said she was making plans to stage The Wheels of Misfortune somewhere other than the Performing Arts Center.

-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or .

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