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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Scapegoat
Pillsbury House Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of And So It Goes and Buried Child


Regina Marie Williams and James A. Williams
Photo by George Byron Griffith
Christina M. Ham's Scapegoat, receiving its world premiere production at Pillsbury House Theater, is a two-act play that comes across as two one-act plays linked by a common location and broad theme of conflict and connection between racial groups. The specific setting is the hamlet of Elaine, Arkansas, where an actual incident, the Arkansas Race Riots, that forms the basis of act one, took place in 1919. The riots were triggered by efforts of black sharecroppers to organize a union, and the fierce resistance to those efforts among their white neighbors, landowners and sharecroppers alike. About 100 black farmers meeting in a church were surrounded by 500 to 1,000 whites from Elaine and surrounding towns. In the ensuing melee, five white men were killed while the estimated numbers of blacks killed range from 100 to 240. Nearly 260 blacks were arrested, of which 73 were charged with murder. Twelve were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries for the murder of the first white deputy at the church. Not one white person was brought up on any charges.

Act one of Scapegoat tells a fictional story that leads up to the actual riots. Effie and Virgil are black sharecroppers. Virgil is a leader in efforts to organize the union, while Effie worries this will only bring more woe upon them. The play opens with Effie's piercing scream, her heart—and Virgil's—torn asunder by the murder of their only son in a brutal attack prompted by unfounded rumors that he was in an inappropriate relationship with a white woman named Ora. Ora and her husband Uly are themselves sharecroppers, and Uly bitterly resents being as dirt poor as their black neighbors. After giving in to the demands of her husband Uly and their white neighbors to falsely affirm the rumors, Ora is racked with guilt, while Uly feels emboldened to continue to act on his hatred.

This story plays out in the most gripping manner, depicting the agonizing loss felt by Effie and Virgil which threatens to split them apart as they face their grief in different ways. Ora is shown as a victim who wants to do what is right and, having failed that, is desperate to atone. Uly, a hateful racist bully, is haunted by demons that have trained him to believe that as a white man, he is entitled to live above the black man, and to be infuriated if he cannot. The tragedy of this history is clearly etched, in very personal terms.

Scapegoat's four actors—Regina Marie Williams as Effie, James A. Williams as Virgil, Dan Hopman as Uly, and Jennifer Blagen as Ora—all do exceptional work. Their characters ring true and touch us with the depth of their feelings, even when that feeling is hatred, as in Hopman's Uly. Blagen meets the challenge of playing a character who must convince us of her virtue in spite of committing an act of treachery against a man who not only was innocent but had been kind to her. Ms. Williams convinces us that a woman robbed of her only child can muster a morsel of forgiveness for she who caused that deed; despite her impulse to fight cruelty with cruelty, she cannot dismiss her better nature.

Marion McClinton directs this ensemble with seamless movement from scene to scene, building up the torrent of emotions that propel them. The set places Effie and Virgil's humble but tidy cabin on one side of the stage, and Ora and Uly's, shabbier cabin on the other—with space in the center for what little common ground they can find. Katherine Horowitz's sound design, Michael Wangen's lighting design, and Trevor Bowen's costumes, all contribute to the sense of rising tension.

Act two also takes place in Elaine, Arkansas, but the time is now. We are in the company of two New York couples, who both happen to be interracial. Paula (Regina Marie Williams) and Greg (James A. Williams) became friends at Yale law school. Paula is in her second marriage, to Russel (Dan Hopman), who comes from a wealthy, conservative family. Greg is married to Elaine (Jennifer Blagen), an urban design professional who also teaches at Columbia.

This quartet of well-off, educated, liberal professionals are on a road trip that has them meandering through Arkansas on their way to New Orleans, then to Hilton Head for golf. Russ is rattled by having been stopped by a police officer. Greg tells him he was stopped for DWBP—"driving with black people." They discuss this while taking photos of a quaint old building amid cotton fields. This leads to a series of discussions on how they are viewed as biracial couples, whether it bothers them when others stare, how they handle the issue of race with their children, and related topics. These are all perfectly reasonable concerns, yet their conversations lack a sense of urgency, and they seem to prefer avoiding getting too close to the bone.

At one point Paula suggests that they not talk about race at all for the rest of their trip, though this proves to be impossible, especially once Russ learns about the Elaine Race Riots from a brochure at the motel. It turns out that the spot where they had taken photos earlier that day is the very site of the riots. This is about two thirds through the second act, after we have spent a good deal of time watching these self-entitled people skirt around their issues. There is suddenly a leaden sense of the burdens of history, of evil inflicted and pain endured, by those who preceded them. Yet, their response is more akin to responding to the saga of a Civil War battlefield, with a sense of import from a distance that doesn't enter their bloodstream.

The same four actors do fine work in the second act, James A. Williams especially hitting a high mark as Greg, and Marion McClinton's direction captures the delicacy of the interactions between and within the two couples. But all their talents can't inject a heartbeat into this light fare. At the same time, the characters change their positions during the course of the evening. Or course, changing your view can be a good thing, the result of new insights, but this is not the case. It is as if the point a character made earlier in the act is forgotten when they state an opposing view later that same evening. This makes it difficult for actors to create indelible, strongly defined characters.

Playwright Ham has given us some exceptional work in the past, most recently Nina Simone: Four Women at Park Square, and we can anticipate more strong work from her. In Scapegoat we have, in act one, a great one-act play of deep import and impact, and in act two, a related one-act that amuses but is easy to leave behind, not because its issues don't matter, but because its characters never seem to engage its issues below the surface. Drawing stronger connections between these two parts, with a through-line of narrative tension, may yet meld the work into a powerful two-act play.

Scapegoat> continues through June 26, 2016, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.

Writer: Christina M. Ham; Director: Marion McClinton; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Prop Design: Kellie Larson; Fight Choreographer: Heidi Batz Rogers; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Assistant Director: E.G. Bailey; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noel Raymond

Cast: Jennifer Blagen (Ora Gibson, Elaine Macaslan), Dan Hopman (Uly Gibson, Russel Barnes), James A. Williams (Virgil Hillman, Greg Macaslan), Regina Marie Williams (Effie Reynolds, Paula Barnes).


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