Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Grappling with Midwestern Memories: A New Lynching Play

American dramatist Charles Smith has given the nation a new lynching play of remarkable nuance and beauty. The Gospel According to James was commissioned by the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre as a way of engaging the state’s history—specifically, the lynching in Marion, Indiana that James Cameron survived, later founding the Black Holocaust Museum. The show ran at IRT from March 22 to April 10, 2011. From May 14 to June 12, 2011, the same cast and crew will bring it to life for Chicago audiences. Though inspired by racial violence in the Midwest, The Gospel According to James focuses on the role of memory in all accounts of history.

As Smith says in the author’s note, “[the play] is not about the lynching. The lynching is only the starting point.” Therefore, from the moment that he began facing the challenge of writing about this violent event, Smith had been sure about one thing: “I knew that I did not want to reproduce the lynching on stage.”

In this way, his work resembles the earliest black-authored lynching plays. Scripts about racial violence written in the 1910s and 1920s—such as Angelina Weld Grimk√©’s Rachel (1914/1916), Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), Mary Burrill’s Aftermath (1919), and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s A Sunday Morning in the South (1925) and Safe (1929)—refuse to describe, let alone portray, physical violence.

Adding to this tradition, Smith creates a fictional meeting between the black man who escaped the mob’s wrath and the white woman who had been with him that night. It is now the early 1980s—more than fifty years after the double lynching of Cameron’s friends Abe Smith and Tommy Shipp. James Cameron (Andr√© De Shields) asks Mary Ball, who now goes by “Marie” (Linda Kimbrough), to speak to a man who wants to make a documentary about the events that changed their lives. Marie is not at all interested in this project.

Still, the play unfolds as Marie and Cameron share what they remember about the events that led to the mob dragging the black teenagers through town. As they tell their stories, 16-year-old James Cameron (Anthony Peeples) and young Mary (Kelsey Brennan) appear downstage, along with the others involved. Mirroring the audience, the mature characters watch their younger selves in each other’s versions, sometimes learning details that they had no way of knowing in their teens. More crucial to the playwright’s purpose, though, they often disagree with each other’s accounts even when they had been privy to the exact same information.

The Gospel According to James confronts its audience with the impossibility of knowing exactly what happened that night. Indeed, the play suggests that (pace some historians’ claims) facts are never simply facts; all historical narratives are shaped by perspective. And this is especially true of histories wrought with the complexities that always attend race, sex, and violence in the United States.

From the very beginning of the action, Marie repeatedly calls Cameron a liar. She insists that he knows that events did not unfold as he claims in his autobiography and in interviews. Indeed, she is sarcastic as she declares that he has given the nation “the gospel according to James.”

It is not until much later that the audience discovers why Marie insists that Cameron lied. In a moment of empathy, she admits understanding why he said that her boyfriend Claude, who died that night in 1930, had been “a good white man.” If Cameron had told the truth about how low-down, dirty, and cruel Claude had been (to her and to others), there is no way that town whites would have let Cameron live.

From beginning to end, Smith’s work maintains a palpable tension. Painful stories contradict each other as they vie for space in the world, as they compete to survive and to be remembered. The play never offers its audience the comfort that comes with feeling certain…about what happened or about what motivated those involved. And Smith suggests that this uncertainty clings to all histories. History is shaped by memory. It therefore reflects what people are willing to remember and what they insist upon forgetting.

Smith’s work also suggests that language—the medium through which we create and convey history—sometimes reveals an investment in a particular image. After Cameron’s teenage friends are murdered, Mary’s father, Hoot Ball (Christopher Jon Martin), goes home and tells his wife Bea (Diane Kondrat) what has happened. He had been a member of the mob, and using that position of privilege, he had also helped save Cameron’s life. Still, his wife is shocked to discover that teenagers were lynched in her town. Hoot immediately corrects her: “Lynched? This ain’t Mississippi. This is Indiana. They were hanged!”

After James and Marie have finished sharing what they remember about that night and how it affected the rest of their lives, they have more compassion for each other. And they ultimately agree that when people face the past, they must decide either to bear witness to their truth or shirk that responsibility by trying to forget. Marie chooses the latter. She gives Cameron a necklace, her only memento from that night, and leaves him to grapple with his memories and hers.

Alone, Cameron faces all of the people whose stories were told as he and Marie shared their memories of that night in 1930. Charles Smith leaves his audience with an appreciation of the responsibility that Cameron shouldered. Having survived what his friends did not, Cameron refused to forget; he preserved stories that help make our nation’s history. He spent the rest of his life encouraging the country to face all of its truths so that all of its citizens might heal.