In August, in the year 1930, in a little Indiana town,Marion, two African American men were lynched in the center of the town. They had been arrested and charged withthe armed robbery and murder of a White factory worker and the rape of his female companion, Mary Ball. In Charles Smith’s marvelous “The Gospel According To James”, now in it’s Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, we see what might have been the story, or should I say stories of this incident as recalled by a third boy who was saved from the mob and Mary who has come back to Marion to bury her father. Smith tells the story through the memories of James (brilliant work by Andre De Shields) and Marie ( an astounding trip through time beautifully played by Linda Kimbrough).
It is some 50 years later and Marie has come to bury her father who she has not seen since that fateful day. Instead of burying him, she has him cremated and placed in an urn. She had left Marion when all the turmoil broke out and had not seen her parents since, not knowing what ever had taken place over the years or if her mother was still live. James on the other hand, in this story, was the third boy who had been arrested, but saved from hanging and is about to get a full pardon after supposedly convincing the world that he was not guilty of any of what transpired on that fateful night. As a youth he was known as Apples ( a fine performance by Anthony Peeples) and his pals were Tommy ( deftly handled by Wardell Julius Clark) and Abe ( solidly played by Tyler Jacob Rollinson). This was the 1930′s and segregation was still the rule of thumb in most of Indiana. The times were tough and survival was of the greatest importance for both White and Black. It was also a time of fear of what might take place if Blacks and White became to close and of course the Klan was a power, even in Indiana.
This play dramatizes the memories of Marie, as she remembers what took place prior to and during the mob scene and those of James- these are stories that differ in many ways, but the telling of their stories and the way director Chuck Smith has paced the action makes this one of the most powerful productions dealing witha real story I have seen.Playwright Smith has opened up a history lesson for which we can develop feeling for each of the characters, and although we do not see the actual hangings, the visuals that we see regarding that night are very real. The stories and director Smith’s interpretation allow us to watch the story unfold in dramatic fashion as we bear witness to how each of our main characters recalls the events. One of the early scenes deals with Marie’s desire to forget her past and James explains to her that we cannot; just as the Jews recall the Holocaust so they will always remember, it is important to the town of Marion that what happened to their town never be forgotten as well.
The play explores how each person’s memories of the same event can be different and how there are often three sides to a story, in this case, James’ side,Marie’s side and of course the truth. This play is about the future although it takes the past and presnetto make both characters see the importance of the future. More for Marie as she becomes enlightened by what James teaches her; Redemption!The other cast members of this brilliant production are Christopher Jon Martin as Marie’s dad, Diane Kondrat as her mother ,Zach Kenney as her boyfriend, Claude ( the boy who is killed) and a dynamic performance by Kelsey Brennan as young Mary. As James and Marie recall their memories of the events, we learn that many mysteries become uncovered, some that will be somewhat astounding and since they are an integral part of the plot, I will not reveal. I will tell you that the ending is possibly one of the most dramatic you will witness and that thi s production is as educational as it is entertaining and one you should put on your “to do list”!
Every little detail of this production is perfect. From the set by Linda Buchanan- simplicity that gets the job done, The marvelous lighting by Kathy Perkins, Ray Nardelli’s sound and music and even the costumes by Rachel Healy add to the overall power of the play. Often, theater companies over do their production, overpowering the script- Victory Gardens does not, thus the story, the direction and the cast with the assitance of the technical people are allowed to produce something special for the audiences that are luck enough to see this production. “Gospel” will continue at he Victory Gardens Biograph Theater located at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. through June 12th with performances as follows:
Tuesdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday afternoons at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. There will also be a 2 p.m. matinee on June 1st and no performance on May 31st.
Tickets range from $20-$50 and are available at the box office, by phone at 773-871-3000 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.victorygardens.org. Ask the box office about student, senior, Access, 20 for $20 specials and don’t forget “rush” rickts ( subject to availability) one hour prior to curtain.