Gospel James

Tommy pulls gun on Claude during play in Indiana

Photographer: Julie Curry

Gospel James

James speaking with Marie as they try to find the truth

Photographer: Julie Curry

Gospel James alums

Alumni Kelsey Brennan and Tyler Jacob Rollinson share a scene during the popular play

Photographer: Julie Curry

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Charles Smith's play set to open in Chicago

Play goes beyond retelling the story of 1930 double lynching

Fresh off a successful run at the Indiana Repertory Theater in Indianapolis, Ind., Ohio University Distinguished Professor of Theater Charles Smith's newest play, "The Gospel According to James," runs May 14-June 12 at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. 

The fictional play based on true events uses the double lynching in 1930 Marion, Ind., as the backdrop. The event was immortalized by the iconic Lawrence Beitler photograph.

Smith said the hardest part of writing a play on an emotional, historic event is how to approach the material.

"A young writer would say, 'I'm writing a play about a lynching,'" Smith said. "But there are thousands of ways to approach the material. The play is certainly based upon the lynching, but there are built in traps, because of the sensational nature of the event. The first trap is to approach it as sensationalism. But theater must be more than a platform for pointing out injustice. Theater must be transformative in nature."

Smith said audiences are both surprised and pleased that the play isn't a historical account of the lynching.

"People think they will be assaulted by sensationalistic, melodramatic images, and a retelling, but they're not and they're delighted," Smith said. "The idea that a double lynching happened in 1930 is not the goal of the piece. We can understand that by picking up a newspaper or a book. What we wanted to do is use the lynching as a starting point to talk about other issues that are far more complex."

During the play, Smith creates a fictional meeting between James Cameron, an African-American man who miraculously survived the public lynching and Mary Ball, the only woman at the scene that night. But years later, contradictory memories are all that's left between them.

As the play walks you through the events of the night, it explores how unreliable personal memories are and asks the question, 'Is there such thing as the empirical truth?'

Smith said he doesn't believe empirical truth exists.

"Some people have trouble with the fact that there is no empirical truth in the play and many people live their life by what they consider to be the empirical truth." Smith said. "This is the world we live in. We all crave somebody to tell us the truth. What you have is different people's perceptions and the more common the perception, the more apt we are to call it the truth."

Smith gave the example of a minor car accident he almost witnessed on Court Street in Athens. He overheard two women tell each other they witnessed the accident, but moments later he heard one of the women tell the other one, "No, that's not what happened."

"You can't expect someone to tell you exactly what happened in a small town in Indiana in 1930. That's not going to happen," Smith said. "People today still doubt whether a man walked on the moon."

Smith said some of the ideas the play presents is how we as a society move on after such a horrific event, what is the nature of forgiveness, what is the nature of history and memory and how do they serve us?
"These ideas are what people find to be profound, moving, and thought provoking about the play," Smith said. "This is what has been bringing people back to the theater. When they come back they bring friends and they discover something they missed the first time. It is an experience they want to live over and over again."

Indiana Repertory Theater Resident Dramaturg Richard Roberts said he witnessed firsthand how much audiences enjoyed the play night after night.

"Audiences loved it, they leapt to their feet," Roberts said. "They raved about it and were intrigued by it. What works so well is that the lynching is not the central focus. It functions like a murder mystery in that there are two versions of the story. The audience is left to decide which is true, maybe neither or both."

"The Gospel According to James" also has received favorable reviews from Indiana theater critics.

Hope Baugh, critic for the Indy Theatre Habit blog wrote, "This show is a good choice for adults who love chewy, transformative plays that are well acted and beautifully produced. This show is also a good choice for adults that enjoy the unexpected, especially in terms of conversation rather than theatrical razzle-dazzle."

Smith said he appreciates the positive reviews, but they are not the primary source of his excitement for the play.

"I appreciate the positive reviews, but the reviews are not where my fulfillment comes from," Smith said. "Audiences giving the play standing ovations night after night confirms my confidence in what it is I have done."

Two-time Tony nominated actor Andre DeShields stars in the play as the elderly James Cameron and three out of the nine cast members – Kelsey Brennan, Christopher Jon Martin, Tyler Jacob Rollinson – are OHIO alumni.

Smith said he is always searching for talented OHIO alumni to work in his productions.

"When I see outstanding OU students, I'm only helping myself to call on them when I work professionally," Smith said.

Finally, Smith said he doesn't know if or when the play will come to Athens, however, he did confirm that there is a rumor that the play will have a run in New York in the near future.

"Until all the contracts are signed, it's just a rumor," he laughed.

On May 22 at Victory Gardens Theater, Ohio University alumni will be well represented in the audience.

In addition to tickets to the play, alumni are invited to a post-play reception including heavy hors d' oeuvres, cocktails, and Q&A session with playwright Charles Smith. Tickets are $40.

Smith is head of the Professional Playwriting Program at Ohio University and playwright in residence at the Tony Award-winning Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. His plays have been produced off-Broadway and around the country. His work has also been produced for the HBO New Writers Project, the International Children's Theater Festival in Seattle and the North Carolina Black Arts Festival.

For more information or to reserve tickets for this special alumni event, click here. To read more about the play on the Victory Gardens website, click here. For more information about Charles Smith's plays, visit http://www.csplays.com/.