Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Scapegoat at Pillsbury House Theatre

Christina M. Ham's new play, Scapegoat, premiering at Pillsbury House Theatre, revolves around a horrific, but mostly forgotten, chapter in American race relations. Elaine, Arkansas, was the site of a so-called Race Riot in 1919 that resulted in the deaths of five white people and anywhere from 150 to 800 black people. Twelve black men were convicted and sentenced to death, while no white people faced charges related to the events.

As the first act opens, black sharecroppers Virgil and Effie (James A. Williams and Regina Marie Williams) are anguished and helpless, listening to the dying cries of their only son, who has been burned alive right in front of their house by a gang of white sharecroppers. The violence, though unseen, is vivid and disturbing. But Virgil and Effie do what they must to survive and move forward.
Regina M. Williams and James A. Williams 
(photo by George Byron Griffiths)

Once we are acquainted with their story, Ora and Uly (Jennifer Blagen and Dan Hopman) enter. They are white sharecroppers and neighbors of Virgil and Effie. Uly is unrepentant about his role in the murder of his neighbor, which Hopman plays with an eerie nonchalance. Ora is distraught, but clearly unable to defy her husband, and Blagen is affecting as a woman caught in her time and place. Ora and Uly are far less successful than their neighbors, which is made apparent through Dean Holzman's set and Trevor Bowen's costumes.

Ora tries to make amends, and while the womenfolk move toward understanding, their husbands cannot. Sadly, the poverty of both families is the result of the sharecropper system, which sets up the landowners to come out ahead in all transactions. Virgil is working with union organizers to pull the sharecroppers together to negotiate more favorable terms from the landowners. James A. Williams is passionate and determined  as Virgil, even as continuing his work threatens his life, Regina Marie Williams is heartbreaking as the mother who has lost her son and fears losing her husband as well.

Each action leads inevitably to the historic tragedy, which is about to begin as the act ends. When the play resumes, the mood has lightened incredibly. In present-day Elaine, two couples on a road trip happen upon the site of riots, and as they (and we) learn what happened, we see how deep the scars of violence and injustice run, even in an allegedly "post-racial" environment.

Regina M. Williams, Dan Hopman, Jennifer Blagen, and James A. Williams
(photo by George Byron Griffiths)
The brilliance of Ham's script is in taking a huge event and bringing it down to the intimate level of just these characters. It makes the horror personal. And in the second act, each character reacts to the revelation of the history in his or her own way.

All four actors brilliantly portray their completely different characters. It was a bit of a relief to see Hopman show up as a Brooklyn hipster married to Paula, played by the astounding Regina Williams, completely transformed from the terrified and grieving Effie. James Williams and Blagen are also at drastic odds with their first-act characters as a successful attorney and his college-professor wife. Director Marion McClinton uses the memory of the first act to draw parallels between the two sets of people in ways that illuminate the struggle that continues today.

Scapegoat is an excellent example of the breadth and power of the Twin Cities theater community. Playwright Christina Ham, who came to Minnesota on a fellowship to the Playwright's Center, has plays produced nationally and internationally, but makes her home here. The play was workshopped at the Playwright's Center PlayLabs series with the same excellent cast that performs here. The terrific design team are all experienced locals, making this a fine reminder of how fortunate we are to have these incredible talents right here in Minnesota.

A powerful play, masterfully executed, which illuminates how the past carries forward to today, Scapegoat is a must-see.