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
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
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."
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
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.