THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAMES, intriguing theatre at Ensemble
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
Charles Smith, author of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAMES, which is now getting its Ohio Premiere at Ensemble Theatre, is an award-winning writer, and playwright-in-residence for the Indiana Repertory Theatre. He is also head of the Professional playwriting program at Ohio University.
Smith writes political and historical tomes which center on race, identity and politics in America from an African-American perspective.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAMES, though it centers on lynching, is, in reality, not about lynching, per se. It is a memory play which brings into question how an individual's background and perspectives affect how that person perceives an incident.
To understand the underlying story, awareness of the Ku Klux Klan is important. Though founded in 1866 in the south, the Klan was prominent in parts of the North after World War I. The group, made up of native-born, white Protestants, which was against Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, immorality, and drinking was centered in southern Indiana during the 1920 and 30s.
On August 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in Marion, Indiana. They were arrested the night before, supposedly for robbing and murdering Claude Deeter, a white factory worker, and raping his fiancé, Mary Ball. In spite of Ball denying having being raped, a large mob broke into the jail, beat three men, hanging two of them. The third, 16-year-old James Cameron, escaped the mob's wrath due to the intervention of an "unidentified" white man.
Lawrence Beitler, a photographer, chronicled the incident in a series of sensational pictures. The pictures were an inspiration for the poem, Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol, who also wrote The House I Live In, became the text for a song popularized by Billie Holiday in 1939. ("Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.")
James Cameron, who survived the incident, inspired by a visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel, founded America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is dedicated to the history of lynching in the United States.
The play concerns Mary Ball and Cameron, the sole survivors of the Marion incident, who meet years later, following the death of Mary's father. As they reluctantly talk, divergent memories emerge of what happened. Racism, sexism, honesty, redemption, and perception mingle into a mystery. The audience is left with the question of who is telling the truth and asking, "What really did happen?"
Ensemble's production, under the focused direction of Celeste Consentino, is compelling. The writing is so clear and interesting, and the acting so strong, that even though the pacing sometime lags, and some actor's projection falters, there is little time for wandering minds.
The cast works well as a unit and is well-balanced in motivations and clarity of purpose. Anne McEvoy as the now middle aged Marie (Mary Ball) and Peter Lawson Jones as the adult James Cameron, are each believable as the duo with the differing memories. As the younger Mary, Katie Nabors gives a focused performance.
Though, at times a little affected, leading to some question of how Apples (the self-proclaimed nick-name of James as a youth) becomes the level-headed Cameron as an adult, J'Vaughn T. Briscoe creates an interesting character.
Antuane Rogers is spot on as Tommy Shipp, texturing the role with meaningful verbal and nonverbal actions, while Kyle Carthens is fine as Abe Smith. Keith E. Stevens is properly snarly and despicable as Claude, Mary's abusive fiancé.
Valerie Young gives a sensitive interpretation to Bea Ball, Mary's beaten down mother. Tim Walsh is believable as Mary's father and former Klan member.
Ian Hinz's set and Andrew Eckert's lighting, Celeste Cosentino and Sarah May's sound and props, and Larry Gorjup's sound effects, all add much to the production.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JAMES is a fascinating, well written play, which is getting a fine performance at Ensemble, and well deserves to be seen! For a special treat attend the February 16 performance when the playwright will conduct a talk back.