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: Ghosts of Atwood (MPAACT)

     
     

Exorcising the past without reconciliation

 

  
     

  
MPAACT presents
  
Ghosts of Atwood
  
Written by Shepsu Aahku
Directed by
Andrea J. Dymond
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $21-$23  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Ghosts of Atwood has a fascinating and voyeuristic premise – a chance to see behind the walls of a midwestern boys military school. The fascination comes from the fact that the narrator is a still-traumatized Black man looking back thirty or so years. He comes from a past of being only one of the few allowed in the White world. It was supposed to be a privilege and an honor to assimilate and pave the way for others to follow.

As suspected, the grass is not green in the verdant woods of Wisconsin for toy soldier Quinn. MPAACT playwright-in-residence Shepsu Aahku is the author of Ghosts of Atwood.  His work is a memoir of his own time in military school back in the 1970’s and, according to Aahku, sometimes memory cannot be trusted. It turns out that this is a rationalization fed to impressionable children to mask the horrors inflicted upon them. What is the truth? Who is your brother when it hits the fan?

Quinn is dropped off at Atwood while his still loving mother gets her life in order. He comes from a supportive family that wants him to have a good life, the kind of life advertised in the Sunday supplement magazine.

Quinn is brutally hazed by cadet Moose and his posse on his first day at Atwood. Zack Shornick is brilliant as the abusive and abandoned Moose. He blends fear, anger, and atavism in an explosive performance.

Equally brilliant is Corey Spruill as cadet Whitehead – the only other black kid at Atwood. Spruill quiet performance simmers and then boils over in a seething climax that breaks the heart from the shame of recognition. Whitehead has been at Atwood for seven years and doesn’t classify himself as anything other than a soldier. The moment that he allows vulnerability, the shell breaks completely.

Aahku’s structure for  Ghosts of Atwood is pretty straightforward. But in an effort to distinguish this work from similar stories like “Lord of the Flies” or “Taps”, he adds an esoteric quality to the ‘ghosts’. Imaging horrific abuse as a monster under the bed drives the fact that the cadets are really children. 

   

The ghost causes one child, Bobby, to be a chronic bed wetter at the mercy of Moose and the other boys. Jack Miggins is heartbreaking as Bobby, who should be playing baseball but is Moose’s unfortunate ‘bitch’. His breakdown recalls the demise of Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

The grownups in Ghosts of Atwood are stock military characters. The role of Hammer (Dan Loftus) is a disciplinarian handing out demerits for dirty dress whites and a paddling for unruly behavior. Loftus projects a martial image of paternal firmness. Niall McGinty plays the jolly wilderness guide Major Taggert. His folksy Mayberry demeanor adds a jolt to his character being revealed as a malevolent force.

Wardell Julius Clark plays the lead role of cadet Quinn. His character is seen as a teenager and then as an adult decades later still haunted by Atwood. Clark’s performance comes off as strangely tight and stiff even in light of his character’s memories. It’s given that Quinn is well spoken and in a military milieu but it doesn’t jibe with the more naturalistic method of the rest of the cast.

Actors James Holbrook and Jack Moore give excellent performances as boys who’ have molded into military life. Mr. Moore is chilling and funny as the perfect Drill Captain whose uniform is full of braids and medals. Mr. Holbrook also fits the military image as well. His character Waddelow is the cadet who gets to log in the demerits and inflict abuse unpunished for the most part. He has mastered the smug sneer and is physically menacing, which is perfect for the role.

I would be remiss to not mention the glorious Trinity P. Murdock as Nesta the Rastafarian griot/singer. He is a sort of Greek Chorus underscoring the present day Quinn’s post- traumatic memories and the means by which Whitehead coped with Atwood in the past. Whitehead believes in the Rastafarian idea of justice and resistance through Jah and sacramental spliffs. It is lost on naïve Quinn but remains a constant song in his adult memory through Nesta.

Ghosts of Atwood is designed well. The imaging of the ghost as an undulating black mist gives one the chills and provides for an appropriate visual metaphor of a child’s nightmare memories. The sparse dormitory and wood footlockers give an authentic old boarding school feel to the set.

I give kudos to the cast and Drill Team Choreographer Demetria Thomas for precision worthy of competition. Also, a special mention is given to Kevin Douglas for excellent fight choreography. These scenes are brutal and have to be precise and authentic to have the intended impact.

This is a production that should be on your list of shows to see this month. Ghosts of Atwood is a chilling and authentic exploration of the truth that society is not willing to remember. With resident director Andrea J. Dymond doing an exemplary job shaping and pacing the show,  Ghosts is a powerful indictment of what authority is willing to ignore or deny under the guise of ivy-covered utopias at the expense of the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ghost of Atwood runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm until February 27th. The Greenhouse Theatre Center is located 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. Call 773-404-7336 for box office information or check out the website www.mpaact.org