Developing a recorded history of any event is often a subjective and fraught process. The people who tell the stories of any occurrence bring their own emotions and agendas to the table, influencing the final picture that other people receive.
That idea is woven into the core of The Gospel According to James by Charles Smith, now at Ensemble Theatre. This is an adventurous and risk-taking piece, since it never provides the audience with an agreed-upon set of facts. And while there are some intricately nuanced performances on stage, slow pacing and excessive introspection veer the production off the best possible path.
The 2½-hour experience centers on an actual lynching of two black men, Abe Smith and Tommy Shipp, in Marion, Indiana in 1930. It is narrated by two people, Marie and James, who end up discussing the event in 1980 with divergent memories and wholly separate goals.
Marie and James are back in Marion 50 years after the awful day and meet up, in either a realistic or imaginary space, as you wish. Marie, who is white, is there to attend to the funeral of her father, Hoot Ball, while James, who is African-American and a survivor of the lynching, is there to drum up support for a memorial to his two long-dead friends.
From the start, Marie attacks James for his continued “lying” about the events of that day. Back in the day, Marie was called Mary (portrayed by Katie Nabors), a high-spirited young woman who cavorted with Abe and Tommy and the young and naive James who at the time was called “Apples” (J’Vaughn T. Briscoe).
For his part, James is calm and focused, trying to bring out Marie’s story while disagreeing with her on many points. And he’s packing a metal ammunition box filled with bits of historical evidence—a piece of the lynching rope, bark from the tree—to use in his own version of an American Yad Vashem-style memorial to lynching victims.
A significant part of the play is told in those flashbacks, as we see gregarious Abe (an intoxicatingly endearing Kyle Carthens) and Tommy (a slightly unstable but quite amusing Antuane Rogers) fence with the white folks in town. Those rednecks are represented by Keith E. Stevens, who struts and attacks like a banty rooster as Claude.
Then there’s Hoot and his wife Bea, played with snap and specificity by Tim Walsh and Valerie Young. Indeed, these flashback scenes that lead to a murder and then the lynching often ripple with genuine emotion and honesty.
Many of the production’s weakness stem from the 1980 scenes, as Marie and James deal with each other and their haunted memories. As the reluctant but still passionate Marie, Anne McEvoy lends a much-needed accent of cynicism to the proceedings.
But Peter Lawson Jones, a fine actor, never seems entirely hooked into the arc of the elderly James. He is hampered by the script, which often only gives James lines that tell his story (“They made me feel ashamed.”) instead of showing it.
As a result, these narrative sequences, which take place upstage on a platform, feel divorced from the blood and sinew of what’s going on below them. And that does not enhance the theatrical impact of the work.
Director Celeste Cosentino is to be congratulated for taking on such a complex play, and for helping to shape several fine performances. But by not staging the show in a way that Marie and James can truly engage with each other and the audience in a visceral manner, the interesting “history of memory” conflict that playwright Smith sets up never comes to full fruition.
Still, there are truths here about how we view history, and race, that deserve to be seen.
The Gospel According to James
Through February 17 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts., 216-321-2930