Review: The Gospel According to James (Victory Gardens)

  
  

History is anything but black and white in “Gospel”

  
  

André De Shields as James in Victory Garden's "The Gospel According To James" by Charles Smith (photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
  
The Gospel According to James
   
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Chuck Smith
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

On Aug. 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in the town of Marion, Indiana. The two African-American men allegedly murdered a white local factory worker and raped his white girlfriend. Instead of allowing the justice system to weigh whether the men were truly guilty, the townspeople took the law into their own hands and tore down the jailhouse doors. Beaten and bloody, the bodies of both men were strung up on an tree. Studio photographer Lawrence Beitler managed to immortalize the horrific event, snapping a picture of the bodies swinging from the tree as a crowd of joyful onlookers stand below. Today, that picture serves as a powerful and grizzly reminder of the consequences of racial intolerance.

Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Tyler Jacob Rollinson as Abe Smith in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According to James. (photo: Liz Lauren)No one knows precisely what events transpired that led to the charges against Thomas and Abram. James Cameron, a third black man initially identified as an accomplice to the crime, was spared from death at the hands of the mob. He would later state in interviews that he fled the seen before the murder took place. Marie Ball, the woman who was allegedly raped, would later testify that she was, in fact, never raped.

This ambiguity makes the case of Thomas and Abram ripe for speculation. And so playwright Charles Smith has embarked on crafting a script that dramatizes what may have transpired throughout those days leading up to the lynching. What results is an intriguing work of historical fiction that wisely steers away from tired cliché and instead focuses on the inherent flaws of memory.

The play is about an imagined meeting between James Cameron (portrayed by André De Shields and Anthony Peeples) and Marie Ball (portrayed by Linda Kimbrough and Kelsey Brennan). Fate has brought them back to Marion. In the passing years, Cameron has taken it upon himself to be the vocal historian of that tragic night. His account parallels that of the real-life history of the event: Abram (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) and Thomas (Wardell Julius Clark) held up former foundry worker Claude (Zach Kenney), and before the murder occurred, Cameron fled the scene.

But Marie does not remember it this way. She resents Cameron for spreading lies and threatens to reveal her version of the truth to the public. As Marie recounts her recollection of the events that led to that ugly night, we see her memories take dramatic form. According to her, Claude was hardly an innocent victim. James was more involved than he claims to be. And she and Thomas were much more than mere acquaintances. But despite her compelling account, Marie’s cognizance is called into question, and we are forced to wonder whose story, if anyone’s, is the real deal.

The cast is captivating. Shields is energetic and expressive as the aged James, while Kimbrough serves as an effective forlorn foil. Meanwhile, the scenes between Marie’s parents (portrayed by Diane Kondrat and Christopher Jon Martin) are powerful, while Kenney is a believable slime ball. There is real chemistry between Rollinson and Brennan, which makes Abram’s lynching that much more heartbreaking. Peeples is the only odd man out here. His portrayal of the youthful version of James is cartoonishly juvenile. He speaks in a childlike tone and talks like an imbecile. This is a complete disconnect from the adult James, who is well spoken and refined.

Smith is a smart playwright. He could have used the Marion lynching as a platform to soapbox about the ills of racism, a trite topic that always falls on agreeable ears. Instead, he focuses on memory and the subjectiveness of history. This is a much more interesting subject to parse, and he does a good job of portraying it dramatically. However, there are a few bumps in the script, particularly when the dialogue veers too far into poetry, creating a sense of melodrama.

Victory Gardens’ production of The Gospel According to James is an engaging fictional account of a historical event. Despite its minor flaws, the solid acting and a strong script prevail, making it a thoroughly entertaining watch.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Anthony Peeples as Apples, Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Wardell Julius Clark as Tommy Shipp in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According To James" at Victory Gardens Theatre (photo: Liz Lauren)

Ticket Prices: $35-$50, Students with I.D.- $20, and can be purchased by phone 773.871.3000 or via e-mail (tickets@victorygardens.org).   Performance Times: Tues-Saturday: 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee: 4pm, Sunday Matinee: 3pm, Wednesday Matinee: 2pm.   Recommended Age: 16 & up

  
  

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REVIEW: The DNA Trail (Silk Road Theatre Project)

Silk Road’s “DNA Trail” doesn’t lead far

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Silk Road Theatre Project presents
 
The DNA Trail
 

Conceived by Jamil Khoury
Directed by Steve Scott
Featuring plays by: Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston, David Henry Hwang, Jamil Khoury, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel, and Elizabeth Wong
at
Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington (map)
through April 4th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The foundational concept behind Silk Road Theatre Project’s The DNA Trail is an inspired one. Seven playwrights of Asian descent have their cheeks swabbed. Those little swabs are analyzed by DNA researchers. The results reveal the ancestral background of each playwright, even pointing as far back as the original cradle of humanity, East Africa. Then the experience is mined for theatrical gold. Each playwright is obliged to write a short piece about the results, the experience, or really anything relating to ancestry, genealogy, or the study of DNA. The whole process is a bold mingling of science and the arts, two forces that should be linked together more often.

dna-trail1 With such a dashing idea, the production could’ve been enlightening. Unfortunately, the results are tepid and meandering, leaving much to be desired.

The seven playwrights are Philip Kan Gotanda, Velina Hasu Houston, Tony-award winner (and Pulitzer finalist) David Henry Hwang, Silk Road artistic director Jamil Khoury, Shishir Kurup, Lina Patel, and Elizabeth Wong. The whole hullabaloo was directed by Steve Scott. The plays range from family dramas, wild farces, and bizarre journeys into the mitochondria.

The last play of the night, Child is Father to Man by Philip Kan Gotanda, is by far the best. It is a one-man show, honestly and thoughtfully performed by Khurram Mozaffar. Gotanda’s play is a meditation on the death of a father, with the son wondering about their relationship, the qualities that are inherited through bloodline, and the qualities that are shaped by life. It’s simple, straightforward, and beautiful. The play proves that something substantial can be accomplished with so few pages. If only this came through in the other short works.

Wong’s Finding Your Inner Zulu is a cute start to the night, but fails to make a real impact. Revolving around two estranged sisters, breast cancer, and a moon goddess, Houston’s Mother Road, leaves the audience behind in confusion after a few minutes. Kurup’s Bolt from the Blue has the same effect. The 12-15 minute play is actually a pretty difficult medium, and Houston and Kurup overextend themselves.

Khoury’s WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole is funny and revealing. Clayton Stamper plays Khoury himself, who deals with the fact that he is a white guy named ‘Jamil.’ The play, through direct address and several scenes, sheds some light on the mission and founding of Silk Road Theatre Project, an interesting by-product of the piece. That Could Be You, Patel’s contribution, dramatizes the science behind DNA in a pretty hilarious way. I was disappointed by Hwang’s piece, A Very DNA Reunion, a homage to the history-defying first act of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls but lacking the bite.

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Scott’s direction is top notch and Lee Keenan’s lights and set are remarkable. The ensemble includes Mozaffar, Stamper, Jennifer Shin, Cora Vander Broek, Melissa Kong, Fawzia Mirza, and Anthony Peeples, and all of the actors do a decent job juggling between each individual show. There is obviously a lot of talent going into this production from nearly every angle. On the whole, the texts just aren’t strong enough to support.

Some of the writers are too married to the project, like Wong and Hwang. Taken out of this specific context, some of the plays wouldn’t work as stand-alone pieces. If we didn’t already know the Trail’s process, a couple would seem oddly obscure. But because the process is revealed in the program, they feel redundant. If everyone could abstract and interpret the project as well as Gotanda, this would be a winning short play festival. When the topic is as significant as the building blocks that make us human beings, Silk Road could have delivered so much more.

 
Rating: ★★
 

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Review: Creative Arts Foundation’s “Pill Hill”

Testing the Bonds of Brotherhood in Sam Kelley’s  “Pill Hill”

 "Pill Hill", by Sam Kelley, now playing at eta Creative Arts Foundation

The award winning eta Creative Arts Foundation wraps up its 38th season with a sterling production of Sam Kelley’s Pill Hill, a play that explores the journeys of 6 Chicago steel mill workers trying to realize economic and social success. Director Aaron Todd Douglas has honed his actors into a taut and dynamic ensemble. His direction shines at its best when it contrasts the vital camaraderie that unites these African American men with the unspoken truths, rationalizations, and false aspirations that throw each character into isolation.

Pill Hill is the black upper-class neighborhood on Chicago’s south side where these men aspire to live one day as a sign that they have “made it.” As some take their first tentative steps away from the steel mill, others get left behind—Charlie, the senior member of the group, who has worked there since migrating to Chicago from the South and Joe, who cannot bear to turn away from a sure paycheck, even though the mill inexorably grinds him down. Kelley’s play examines the toll that success takes on friendship, while acknowledging that the price of doing nothing is certainly just as high.

There is much to be said about Kelley’s keen eye on friendships between the men of Pill Hill. Most of that dynamic plays out between Joe (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Eddie (Anthony Peeples), in the crucible of their desire for a better life. Much as they both share their dreams of getting out of the mill and onto the Hill, more goes unsaid between them about the limits of their friendship when the stagnation of one strains against the overwhelming success of the other.

Indeed, the whole cast, under Douglas’s watchful direction, construct nuanced relationships between their characters, where what is not said matters as much as what is. Therefore, much is made about Joe’s need to move on from mill work, but silence surrounds his encroaching alcoholism; Scott (Cecil Burroughs) gets to revel in his glory days as a prospective football player, but no one confronts him about his descent into drug sales once his potential truly dries up; the guys remark frequently on Tony’s (Corey Spruill) natural abilities as a salesman, but none question his growing lack of a moral center.

Attention, as well as praise, must be paid to the most riveting monologue of the production, delivered by David Adams, as Charlie. It is critical to the play. It grounds it in the recognition that success can never be as simple to African Americans as it is for whites. Success for African Americans bears the awful burden of reflecting full-fledged personhood and first-class citizenship. Tragically, material success may also dangerously expose a black man as being “too uppity.” Charlie relates the time that Southern police officers pulled him over for the crime of driving his new Cadillac around his old hometown. After they have terrorized and humiliated him in front of his family, Charlie drives back to Chicago and puts the Cadillac up on blocks, not to be driven again, until a new sheriff has taken over, years later. Obviously, having more than white bigots think you deserve can get you into as much trouble as having nothing.

While having it all and having nothing contend most dramatically between Joe and Eddie, it’s the internal struggle between the two that wreaks the most havoc with Eddie’s soul. Eddie is the greatest achiever of the group, breaking the glass ceiling as the first black lawyer of a prestigious Chicago law firm. He becomes the group’s living symbol of promise and hope. But one almost wishes Eddie could be a little less successful, but a little more content, as is dear, henpecked Al (Kevin Hope). Peeple’s Eddie is ready to crack under the burden of it all—the success, the compromise that success demands of him, and especially, the childlike adulation of Joe, who is already so broken, no attempt can be made to hide it. Something has got to give. The showdown between Joe and Eddie is searing and unforgettable.

It is my hope that theatergoers who are familiar with the north side will head south to see this magnificent production. Douglas and cast strike the right balance between playfulness and tension, humor and anger, yearning, helplessness, and hope. While some dialogue may be stilted, Sam Kelley’s work truly ranks with other dramas that critique the American Dream, like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Whatever its limits, this play examines something that the previous two works do not. It explores the modern day tests that are put to an African American brotherhood that is, all at once, flawed, endangered, compassionate, and powerful.

Rating:  ««««

Pill Hill runs through August 9th, at the eta Creative Arts Foundation, located at 7558 S Chicago Avenue.  For more info and tickets, call (773) 752-3955.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00 P.M.
Sunday at 3:00 P.M. & 7:00 P.M.

 

For more info regarding eta Creative Arts, click on “Read more”

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