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


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


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.


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