Last Friday I drove to the Indiana Repertory Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to see the opening night performance of the world premiere of “The Gospel According to James.” It was written by Charles Smith and directed by Chuck Smith. It was commissioned by the IRT and its artistic director, Janet Allen, after she read two books by Indiana historian James Madison: The Indiana Way and A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America. It is the tenth new play in the IRT’s Indiana Series.
It is a powerful, richly layered, surprisingly multi-issue drama that left me exhilarated.
I agree whole-heartedly with what some person I don’t know (@Dime30) tweeted right after the Friday night performance: “OMG,” he wrote. “Go and see ‘The Gospel According to James’ @IRTlive. Powerful, gripping, awe inspiring, emotional, it’s not what u think, it’s better.” (bolding is mine)
What the Show Is About
This show is about a lynching that happened here in Indiana in 1930. When I have tried to talk about this show to people in person during the past few days, I can see them shutting down when they hear this first sentence.
So let me say here instead, first, that this is a show about the freedoms and burdens involved with truth telling and truth collecting. It also includes good, chewy food for thought about race relations, male-female relationships, use and abuse of power, the responsibilities of historians, and more, but its main topic is the paradoxical complexity and simplicity of truth telling. It is NOT about preaching or shaming or even blaming.
My program says that “This play is a fictional account inspired by real events.”
I haven’t read much about the real events, but I think these are the facts:
On August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana, two young black men were killed by a mob of white people that thought the young men had raped a young white woman and killed a young white man. The mob was going to kill a third young black man that they thought had also been involved, but something or someone stopped them. The third man eventually served time in jail for being an accomplice.
We don’t know for sure anything else about what happened.
In the play, the surviving black man, James, and white woman, Marie, have come back to Marion in the 1980s – she to bury her father and he to receive a pardon from the governor. James has also come to ask Marie to publicly tell her story about what happened. She resists. He persists. As they talk, their memories return to life and the stories of all involved become, perhaps, clearer. Or at least, the fact that there are many possible truths becomes clearer. In any case, eventually both the man and the woman – and the audience! – are transformed and put on a path towards healing.
Artistic Considerations – The Script
I requested a media pass for this show simply because I hadn’t reviewed a show at the IRT in a while. After I made my reservation, I read Jay Harvey’s preview article about the play in the Indianapolis Star on March 17, 2011. Something in it made me think the show was going to infuriate me:
Jay quoted the playwright as saying about James, the surviving black man, “It doesn’t matter whether or not he told the truth. If he’s willing to step forward, he’s allowed to tell what story he chooses.”
“It doesn’t matter whether or not he told the truth?!” I shook my fist at my computer screen. “The hell it doesn’t matter! No one deserves to be lynched, but did the two murdered men do what they were accused of or not? Was the survivor an accomplice to a crime or not?”
When I read the article, I was feeling angry about politicians and corporate leaders that lie about what they are doing. Telling the truth matters! Of course it matters.
However, after seeing “The Gospel According to James,” I also now think that lynchings happen – really, any sort of mean-spiritedness happens – because angry, frightened people don’t calm down long enough to discern the whole truth about a situation.
I’m also more sensitive now to the fact that many truths are multi-faceted and that even if there had been five people with video cameras on that road when the white man was killed, they still wouldn’t have been able to fully document the truth and context of what happened.
I’m also more sensitive to the fact that a person can have good, life-or-death reasons to lie.
Does this mean that telling the truth doesn’t actually matter after all? Nope. It matters more to me than ever. I just know now that telling the truth is sometimes not a simple matter of – pardon the expression – black or white. And it can’t always be told completely by just one person. Everyone’s stories are important.
“The dead don’t care about justice or revenge,” James tells Marie. “They just want to be remembered….Tell (the truth about) what you remember.”
And then he listens.
Each of the characters in this play (except maybe Claude – the murdered white man who is portrayed as sociopathically cruel before he dies) is fully, satisfyingly human, impossible to slot neatly into either “the good guys” or “the bad guys.” Even James, who is basically a good guy, lapses into the despicable “you’re an emotional woman, therefore you are lying or confused or at the very least what you’re saying doesn’t matter” response when Marie says something that makes him uncomfortable.
And in another part of the play he says, “I was there but I didn’t do anything!” Marie laughs and says, “What do you think being an accomplice means?” This exchange resonated with me on personal, political levels. I MUST make time to write to all of my legislators about the various things that have been on my mind!
But in the meantime can you tell that I love this play? I’m holding back on telling you all of the things that I love because I don’t want to spoil it for you. But I will tell you that it took me twice as long as usual to drive home after the show because I had to keep pulling over to jot down more things that I wanted to cherish!
Most of all, I love that in James’ and Marie’s exploration of the truth, a bit of the truth of what might have been is also included and honored.
Oh, I’m getting chills again, writing this review. I definitely need to see this show at least once more before it leaves Indianapolis and heads up to Chicago for a run at the Victory Gardens Theatre. Maybe I will take a road trip and see it there, too.
Artistic Considerations – This Production
Chuck Smith’s deft direction brings out the surprising bits of humor in the script. The acting is superb across the board. Truly outstanding. There’s a lot of storytelling in this show, especially between the two older characters, but it felt real to me, like dialogue that might happen in real life.
Andre’ De Shields (www.andredeshields.com) and Linda Kimbrough play the older James and Marie, respectively. Their younger selves are played by Anthony Peeples (Apples) and Kelsey Brennan (Mary.) It is fascinating to look back and forth and see how the young people “have changed” over the years, carrying their individual burdens.
(By the way, you can watch an interview of Anthony Peeples on the IRT’s blog, here. I love what he says about ensemble theatre meeting his needs for community. There is also an interesting video interview of Diane Kondrat.)
Marcus Davis Hendricks and Tyler Jacob Rollinson play the two young black men that will eventually be murdered: Tommy Shipp and Abe Smith, respectively. Keith D. Gallagher plays the young white man that will eventually be murdered.
Christopher Jon Martin and Diane Kondrat play Mary’s parents, Hoot Ball and Bea Ball, respectively. Hoot is “a man who lived his life upside down” in many ways, and Bea is the woman that tells him, again and again and again, what he wants to hear, hoping that this time he will believe her and treat her differently.
Each character is portrayed with rich nuance by his or her actor.
The set, designed by Linda Buchanan, is elegant but somber – what you would expect from a funeral parlor – but surrounded by ghostly trees that behave in unexpected ways, especially under Kathy A. Perkins’ agile lighting design. I don’t know who to credit for evoking the automobiles but the method is clever. Bits of music composed by sound designer Ray Nardelli smoothly add another layer of emotion. Rachel Anne Healy’s 1930s and 1980s costume designs add grounding layers of period authenticity.
Janet Allen and Richard J. Roberts were the dramaturgs for this world premiere. Nathan Garrison and Joel Grynheim are the stage managers. Casting was by Claire Simon Casting. Krystle Smith assisted the lighting designer. Wigs (what wigs? I don’t remember any wigs! they must have been very well done!) are by Heather Fleming.
Audience and Appeal Factors
Curse words, violence, and mature themes make this a show for adults and older teens rather than families with children or young teens. My press kit says that this show is “not recommended for youth under 17.”
This show is a good choice for adults who love chewy, transformative plays that are well acted and beautifully produced. This show is also a good choice for adults that enjoy the unexpected, especially in terms of conversation rather than theatrical razzle-dazzle.
And, of course, this show is a good choice for adults that are interested in Indiana history, as long as they understand that presenting factual, historical analysis is not the main purpose of this piece.
“The Gospel According to James” continues at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through April 10, 2011. For more information and to buy tickets, please call the IRT Ticket Office at 317-635-5252 or visit www.irtlive.com.
‘See you at the theatres!
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
P.S. – Follow me (@IndyTheatre) and/or the topic #indystage on Twitter.com. I never tweet during a show (and I beg you not to take your phone out during a show either, for any reason!) but I often tweet first impressions during intermission or immediately after a show.
P.P.S. – All photos above were taken by Julie Curry. If you are reading this on your laptop or desktop computer rather than your smartphone, roll your mouse over each photo to see the actors’ names.