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Distinguished Professor of playwriting Charles Smith uses a historical lens to view and explore racial issues in America

October 12, 2010

In the iconic black-and-white photo of the 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, two mutilated black men—Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp—hang from a tree. Spectators mill about almost as if they’re out for a picnic. A third man, not in the photo, was James Cameron, the only person known to have ever survived a lynching. He was released by the mob before he was hanged, yet the details remain unclear.

James Cameron and the events that led to the lynching are the subjects of Charles Smith’s new play, The Gospel According to James. Or rather, the subjects of Smith’s new play, told around the infamous event, are race relations and how our individual and collective memories create differing versions of history.

Smith, Distinguished Professor of playwriting and head of Ohio University’s professional playwriting program, was commissioned to write The Gospel According to James by the Indiana Repertory Theatre, with funding from the Joyce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In the play, an elderly James encounters Mary Ball, the woman who said she was raped by the young black men, but later recanted. James has gone on—he did so in real life as well as in the play—to become a crusader for civil rights and to keep the memory alive of that terrible night in Indiana. Mary, who has since changed her name to Marie, would just as soon forget it ever happened. “The past isn’t the past, because if it were, we wouldn’t be suffering from it today,” she tells James.

Charles Smith
Charles Smith. Photo Credit: Kevin Riddell.

Young actors replay the crime scene that sent the three youths to jail. James is meant to rob Mary’s boyfriend, Claude, but it turns out James knows Claude, so he flees before trouble ensues. Which is not how Mary remembers it. In her version, the young actors replay the scene, and this time a pregnant Mary kills Claude in order to protect her real boyfriend, Abe, who will go on to be lynched. Still other versions of the story unfold before the play ends.

“The goal is not to take little-known facts and then sort of fill them in,” Smith says. “The dilemma that the characters faced is timeless. And I think that especially when dealing with race, when dealing with any subject that most people have a knee-jerk reaction to—and I think most people have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to race—they are set in their ways in terms of their perception.”

Smith, who is mixed race, has a favored tool for getting around these calcified perceptions: history. “When people sit in the theater and they see a historical piece, about people who lived 100 years ago, I don’t think their defenses go up.”

Audience members, probably none of whom have ever had any real interaction with lynching or the KKK, can take in the play’s finer points, like how James, a virgin, gave himself the nickname Apples because he learned as a boy that lambs intended for slaughter didn’t get names. “There’s a question of innocence because the sacrificial lamb has to be innocent,” Smith says. Then there’s the scene where Marie tells the Biblical story of Lot’s wife who, after turning back to look at Sodom and Gomorrah, is turned into a pillar of salt. In the final scene, a young Mary calls out to her older self, Marie—and Marie pauses. But then she walks away, never looking back.

Janet Allen, artistic director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre, has known Smith for 20 years, since his days in Chicago, where he is still a member of the playwrights’ ensemble for Victory Gardens Theater. She compares him to the likes of August Wilson for his ability to write about race in America on both an intellectual and an emotional level.

“Charles has, I think not deliberately but coincidentally, become known as a playwright who is very strong at commingling historical moment and racial issues,” Allen says. “(He has) an ability to look deeply into how his own life and his family—and I’m talking generationally there —has given him a very particular view of the world and particularly about race in America. I think he’s been amazingly astute at kind of how he has harnessed his own early sense of disenfranchisement and anger … to find a real way to harness some of what could be very negative and corrosive stuff into art.”

Smith didn’t see his first play until he was in his early 20s. A high school dropout, he joined the Army where he earned his GED and took some college-level courses. He wanted to be a novelist. After leaving the Army, he enrolled in a theater class at a community college, where he got roped into acting a couple of lines.

“I was just enchanted,” he recalls. “It was storytelling like a novel, like fiction, but you needed a community of people to tell the story. You got to sort of feel the audience, be with the audience as they were experiencing the story.”

Smith started writing his own plays backstage. One of his professors drove him to the University of Iowa, where Smith applied to the Playwright’s Workshop with that backstage material. He gained admission, only to find out it was an MFA program, but he was able to first complete his bachelor’s degree. Today the program’s web page lists Smith among its noted alumni.

Since 1996, Smith has been a resident playwright at Chicago’s Victory Gardens, which will produce The Gospel According to James in 2011 after the world premiere production at Indiana Repertory. Victory Gardens is the same theater that has premiered or shown many of Smith’s other plays, most of which feature historical African-American characters and their trials as well as triumphs.

 Black Star Line, which profiles Marcus Garvey and his 1920s back-to-Africa movement, was nominated for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in drama. Free Man of Color, which was commissioned for Ohio University’s bicentennial, is the story of the university’s first African-American graduate in 1828, John Newton Templeton, and his benefactor, university president Robert Wilson. In the play, Wilson is a proponent of the back-to-Africa movement, but Templeton is not. Free Man of Color has been produced as far away as Australia. Knock Me a Kiss, which chronicles the expectations-laden marriage between W.E.B. DuBois’ daughter Yolande and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, was included in the anthology Best New Plays of 2000.

Smith has received many accolades for his work. In June, he was named Ohio University’s 2010 Distinguished Professor, the highest recognition attainable at the university for outstanding scholarly and creative accomplishments. He also earned the 2008 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, which, according to the council, is granted for the exceptional merit of a body of work.

Over the next year, five of Smith’s plays will be produced in six cities, and Smith is working on new plays and adaptations. He will continue to deal, directly or indirectly, with issues of race in America. “This country has wrestled with this question (of race) for a long time and we are still wrestling with it today,” he says, “So even when we go into the play saying, ‘Oh yeah, this is about this particular thing,’ ultimately we come away with something more profound and I would say more spiritual. When we sit in the theater, we wrestle with questions, and they’re tough questions.”

Although he is financially successful as far as playwrights go, Smith, 54, remains dedicated to his teaching duties—and it’s not just because he harbors little fondness for his days as a starving artist. “Quite frankly, I love running the program. I love working with the students,” he says, “I believe I can teach anybody to write a play.” Smith attributes his success with student playwrights to two things. First, there’s structure. Smith teaches the narrative tools necessary to put together a storyline. “I believe that form follows function. I believe that what we have to do is figure out what the purpose of the play will be and that will determine how the play will be written,” he says, “I think most writing programs in the country take the opposite view. You write, and then we will tell you what you did wrong.”

Smith runs his program as a professional writers’ workshop: Students not only workshop their plays, they produce them. “Our writers write for production every week,” he says, referring to the five-minute plays his MFA students write and, with the help of students in the acting program, produce for an audience nearly every week out of the academic year. That’s in addition to the full-length pieces they write. “There are so many playwriting programs that are theoretical. People write plays, and then the program may produce only one play a year, which I think is a crime.”

The greater theater world has taken notice of Ohio University’s program. The Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival solicits plays from more than 600 institutions across the country. Three out of the past five years, Ohio University students have placed in top slots, including undergraduate Molly Hagan, who was selected as one of five finalists in the 2010 Ten-Minute Play category, following in the footsteps of MFA student Dana Formby, who won the category in 2009. Atlanta’s Alliance Theater hosts the annual Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. Ohio University students have been finalists over the past four years, and for this their plays receive readings in New York. MFA student David Robinson won the competition in 2010, so he will see the theater produce his play.

“All of the strengths of the playwriting program are really completely of Charles’ own design,” Robinson says, speaking about Smith shortly after winning the Kendeda. “He encourages the writers in the program to understand that writing for the stage means keeping a person’s attention in a way that prose and poetry don’t in live performance. We talk about things like dramatic question, and feeding, creating a question in the mind of an audience that the audience simply cannot wait to see the answer to.”

Smith does this expertly at the beginning of The Gospel According to James, when James and Marie trade differing versions of the same events. The audience wants to know: What really happened? But the play does not provide a definitive answer; instead, it explores race in terms of how our own perceptions and biases affect our memories and interpretations. Smith makes the point that Americans interpret recent history just as divergently—was George W. Bush a good president or the worst thing that happened to the country? “People debating that lived in the same world,” Smith says. “We look for truth, but I don’t think there is a truth.”

Instead, Smith uses his art form to help viewers identify with characters they might not otherwise ever identify with. The Gospel According to James, says Smith’s student Robinson, “has the obvious potential to be the kind of play that liberals love to see, that lets us feel good that we’ve come so far. What I love about Charles Smith the playwright is his ability to take a hot-potato issue or a hot-potato personality and go beyond the personality of Marcus Garvey, go beyond the personality of W.E.B. DuBois, and delve into the human and the universal. I think he’s astonishingly good at it.”

By Mary Reed

This story will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.