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February 31, 2013

'Gospel' truth called into question with play's intriguing script, convincing cast

By Kristen Mott

Whenever we hear a story about a historical event, we assume it to be true. However, memories are frail things, subject to fading and forgetfulness. As we learn in Ensemble Theatre’s powerful and very moving “The Gospel According to James," memories can be manipulated and manufactured as well.

Photo courtesy of Ensemble TheatreThe play centers on the historical lynching of two African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abe Smith, in Marion, Ind. in 1930. The two were accused of shooting a white man, Claude Deeter, and raping his white girlfriend, Mary Ball. Fifty years later, Mary (who now goes by Marie) and James Cameron, an accomplice to the crime whose life was spared, meet for the first time since that tragic night to try to piece together exactly what happened.

Playwright Charles Smith allows Marie and James to offer two very different accounts of what took place the night of the shooting. As the play progresses through these parallel but divergent and equally credible story lines, questions are raised about their authenticity, which results in an interesting piece of storytelling. And, as with Smith's other plays, "The Gospel According to James" uses a historical context to examine race relations and politics in America.

This intriguing script is complemented by the creative choices of director Celeste Cosentino. The Ensemble Theatre space is extremely intimate, and Cosentino uses this to the play's advantage. The present-day Marie and James spend the play on a raised platform while their 1930 counterparts recreate scenes from the past on the floor, close to the audience. Seeing the past unfold before their eyes engages the audience and makes each version of the truth seem real. The simplicity of the staging — just a few props and four panels that depict photographs to establish location — keep the emphasis on the story and those telling it. This proves to be particularly powerful during the very moving reenactment of the hanging, where Tommy (Antuane Rogers) and Abe (Kyle Carthens) stand in shadow before two panels depicting tree branches and give a quiet, excruciatingly stoic account of the chaos and hatred that surrounded their execution.

What the set lacks in detail and realism is made up for by the actors. In particular, Anne McEvoy gives a very convincing performance of the emotionally-scarred, present-day Marie. The audience can feel her underlying sadness and confusion as she attempts to reconcile her version of the past with James. According to James (Peter Lawson Jones), Claude is Mary’s loving and protective boyfriend ,while Marie recalls Claude as a cruel and violent redneck. Keith E. Stevens is believable in both portrayals.
Katie Nabors is wonderful as young Mary, who has a secret and forbidden relationship with Abe.

Those in the audience cannot help but be moved to tears as they bear witness to her longing for Abe, her frustration with the antiquated attitudes of the time and the tension this creates between her parents (Valerie Young and Tim Walsh). The power of her portrayal lends dimension to McEvoy’s depiction of older Marie ,and adds another layer of drama to the reenacted lynching.

"The Gospel According to James" is a stunning play and powerful production. It should not be missed.