IRT premieres 'Gospel According to James' 

click to enlarge Kelsey Brennan and Tyler Rollinson in "The Gospel According to James"
  • Kelsey Brennan and Tyler Rollinson in "The Gospel According to James"

Indiana's history is full of dark events. But no two Hoosiers remember their shared history in the same way. How, then, do we keep the lessons learned from these reprehensible moments alive? This idea is at the heart of the Indiana Repertory Theatre's latest undertaking, a brand new play about Indiana history. IRT presents the world premiere of The Gospel According to James, starting March 22, a show that ruminates on memory through the lens of the last lynching to occur in Indiana.

The script was commissioned by artistic director Janet Allen after she read James Madison's book, A Lynching in the Heartland. When she passed the book and the idea to playwright Charles Smith, IRT took the first step toward a deeper understanding of our Hoosier history.

"Most of the history books we read are suspect," says Charles Smith. "There is no one view of history. If there were, there would be one history book... We deal with [our history] by rewriting it." Collecting various perspectives of this tragic event was the next step in Charles' journey. Crafting his central character as a collector of memories, The Gospel According to James illuminates disagreement over historical fact.

A quick synopsis: This work of historical fiction explores the nature of memory in regard to our collective history. The play is set fifty years after the Marion, Ind., lynching of two black men, Abe Smith and Tom Shipp, in 1930. The action of the play pits against one another two witnesses of the lynching, and their conflicting recollections of the event, told through flashback.

I followed the five-week process of the development of this new, original script, documenting the history-makers as they breathed new life into a shaded past.

Rehearsal Day 1

It's 11 a.m. on a dreary February morning. I arrive for a company meet-and-greet, but immediately learn I am uninvited to attend.

In the past, when I interned at professional theaters, I quietly sat in on these gatherings, marveling at the artistic process. Today, I sit in the lobby, imagining the discussions on the other side of the closed doors. The entire creative team — director, designers, actors and playwright — are introduced to each other for the first time. The play's mission is laid out, and everyone prepares to embark on the various artistic paths.

From the props master to the head electrician, the team members begin to understand the endgame of their labor. After this meeting, each step in the process, from creating vivid characters to hanging a slew of Source Fours (lighting instruments), works toward a shared goal: to tell a brand new story.

Eventually, I am invited into the room and introduced to playwright Charles Smith and director Chuck Smith. That's no misprint; in an uncanny coincidence both men have the same name — in fact, they both hail from Chicago and have worked previously together.

These past experiences inform their plan to avert potential confusion — the director goes by his nickname, "Chuck." For him, the initial read-through of the script is an opportunity to take scope of the work ahead.

"My job is two-fold," he says. "Not only to tell the story as Charles has written it, but to make it accessible to an audience. This is the first time this is going to be done in front of a public audience, and it is my responsibility to make sure that the story is told in the best way I can fashion it. And to make sure that the audience gets what is on that stage and receives it as a valuable dramatic experience."

Rehearsal Day 6

After a week of blocking (movement on stage), the cast prepares for an initial run-through. This "stumble-through," as it is called by members of the creative team, is a chance for the director to see how the play moves on- and offstage. It is a chance for the actors to feel it in their bones. Scripts are in hand for many, but as Chuck says to his cast before the run, "Forgetting your lines won't lose you points. Forgetting blocking will gain you demerits." Additionally, he warns me not to expect too much from the actors, that this rehearsal is purely about reviewing the blocking.

However, the show is already, after one week, extremely powerful.

As the stumble-through comes to a climax with the account of the lynching in Act 2, Tony Award-nominated actor Andre De Shields is a powerhouse of emotion. His character, James, is a survivor of the lynching and a collector of memories. As he erupts with rage and sadness over the memory of the atrocious hate crime, my stomach feels hard, full of rocks. He elicits a powerful emotional response from me — and very wet eyes. In just one week, De Shields has his finger on the pulse of this drama's heart. His work stands head-and-shoulders above where Chuck's expectations for his actors are. "How did you get to that point so early in the process?" I ask.

"I'm going to share something with you very personal," De Shields tells me. "So personal that no one in this company knows. On the first day of rehearsal... at 8:55 that morning, my older sister calls me from Baltimore, which is where my family lives, to tell me that my youngest sister had died... I didn't share this with anyone here, because I didn't want it to enter into rehearsal. This entire week I've been trying to find a place for the sadness that I've experienced because of the death of my younger sister."

His role in the show is compared to a "sineater," an idea Charles Smith would later edit out of the play. A sineater collects the history surrounding an event to unburden others from their memories, but also to place it at the forefront of our collective memory. "The reason that I'm sharing this with you," he continues, "is that [it] gives me an opportunity to begin the healing process. It isn't just my burden now. When my colleagues read it, they'll go 'Oh fuck, and we didn't even know.'"

Rehearsal Day 10

If my last visit to rehearsal was director Chuck Smith painting a play in broad strokes, today he uses a fine-tipped brush to create detail from scene to scene. The morning begins with encounters between Bea (Diane Kondrat) and Hoot (Christopher John Martin), parents of the wild child Mary (Kelsey Brennan), who runs with the group of boys who will ultimately be lynched. In his script, Charles Smith creates for these characters an ancillary story of female oppression, in a world where equality lays out of grasp for many minorities.

I am lucky to witness the transformation of these scenes from the recitation of movement and text to the conveyance of powerfully ambiguous emotion. As Chuck works with Diane at the climax of this side story, he turns the reigns of power over to her character only for a moment. The kooky Kondrat, who jests readily in the respites between scenes, jumps at her new line of direction. As she and Christopher John Martin settle into the scene once more, the story escalates. Hoot confronts Bea with suspicions of her infidelity, threatening to strike her at any moment. With much intensity, she delivers the line: "No Hoot, I do not wish I had married him instead of you." Power oozes from her pores as she stares him down, fighting for her life in sheer terror. The scene becomes theater in its truest sense: intimacy is breathed into the words of a newly born character that discovers for the first time her own voice.

"That was a real problem moment in the scene up to this," Kondrat tells me later. "She'd have to be crazy to get herself in more trouble. Everything tells me that she should be afraid of him... But as soon as I get a moment where I can stand up for myself, that's just great. That's like being on vacation for her. Because I don't get any moments of power through the show."

Chuck directs his actors based on their instincts, "embellishing" their own choices and drawing them out. He constantly pushes his actors to perform for two people. "One of them is blind," he explains, "and the other one is deaf. And they are both sitting in the back row."

Rehearsal Day 15

As he does each morning of rehearsal, playwright Charles Smith bounds into the room today, greeting the cast with hugs and kisses.He is charming, jovial and most of all the master voice of the play, injecting each character with a piece of himself. "I can't help but to bring myself to all of them," says Charles, "because all of them are aspects of who I am and aspects of my experience. If you can parcel out who you are and understand the different facets of who you are... you cannot do anything other than talk about how you view the world."

Charles' everyday, charismatic persona is seen most clearly in the character Abe Smith, played by 23-year-old actor Tyler Jacob Rollinson. In his professional theater debut, Rollinson faces the monumental tasks of portraying not only a victim of the lynching, but the play's character that most closely resembles the playwright. Like Charles, Rollinson's portrayal of Abe is delightfully captivating.

As a former student of Charles Smith's, Rollinson relies on knowledge of his professor to craft the role. "I could kind of see where he loves all of the characters," says Rollinson, "but you can kind of see the ones where the personality really comes through. And I take it as a treat, because I get a little part of the playwright in my character... I can see how much of a charming person Charles is in his everyday life."

For an actor, having the playwright in the room offers many perks. Rollinson interpreted one of Abe's speeches, a catalogue of skin colors, as a seductive and sultry description of diversity. When Charles compared the speech to an upbeat rap or jazz song, something clicked for Rollinson. "It's a stronger way to do it, and it also brings charm in Abe. It lightens Abe up," he says, "so the audience cares more when he's lynched."

As Charles sits beside Chuck in rehearsal, the room's aura of collaboration is heightened. Not only does the cast follow Chuck's direction, they fulfill Charles' vision. He chimes in readily during scene work, offering arguments and raising conversation, all the while pushing the play toward his concept of the script. "If we have ten people in the room," says the playwright, "and they are all thinking differently, that's great because we have ten different points of view. That means a far better chance of having a rounded view of the world and a rounded view of who these people are."

Rehearsal Day 20

Today is the play's final day in the rehearsal room. Tomorrow, Chuck will acclimate his actors to their stage surroundings. Then, the technical process begins. Known as "tech," the three-day marathon is an arduous process of braiding together each theatrical element. Light and sound cues are set, final adjustments are made to set design and costumes, and the show is pushed toward its final shape.

This afternoon the cast performs another run-through for designers, who come to finalize their plans for tech. In the last moments before the room is flooded with designers, Chuck and Charles work to polish the actors' performances. Their adjustments are slight, almost imperceptible. These little decisions are essential to how the show will ultimately be perceived. But they are merely tinkering with the characters.

As the play heads toward the final stages of gestation, each member of the team prepares differently.

"I go away and let them do what they do." says playwright Charles Smith. "[They] work their magic with electrics and sound and put that together. Then I come back with a fresh eye and look at the last dress tech. We'll of course be making adjustments during previews."

Director Chuck Smith: "I'm preparing in the rehearsal room. Not only am I looking at the actors, I'm thinking what's going to happen when. [I] get my mind to the point where I'm not so worried or caring about what the actors are doing... Our interpretations are pretty much on target. Now at this point, its just thinking about 'Oh, they got to turn these lights on where?'"

Anthony Peeples, who plays the role of Apples, is excited for the change of scenery. He adds: "We've been really taken well care of by the process, by Chuck [and] by Charles. I feel comfortable walking into tech. I'm ready. I think the cast is ready. I think we are all ready to be in that space... I look at it as another part of the adventure... It's all a treat for me."

After tech, stage manager Nathan Garrison will take charge of the show. For him, this weekend is a time to coordinate: "It's my favorite part of the process. So I guess I prepare constantly up to that point. [I'm] just making sure all of our communication lines are open and flowing well."

Though the creative process is drawing to a close, the life of this play is only beginning. After a three-week run at IRT, this production travels to Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre. From there, Charles Smith's script will be added to a canon of new American plays, stirring creativity and conversation with each new production.

click to enlarge Tyler Rollinson and Marcus Davis as Abe Smith and Tom Shipp
  • Tyler Rollinson and Marcus Davis as Abe Smith and Tom Shipp

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