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REVIEW: Scapegoat (Pillsbury House Theatre)

The cast of Scapegoat (left-to-right): Dan Hopman, Regina Marie Williams, James A. Williams, Jennifer Blagen. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

The world premiere of Scapegoat, a new play by Christina M. Ham, opened this past weekend at Pillsbury House Theatre. The play is based upon the 1919 massacre of a group of black sharecropper farmers who were organizing the Progressive Famers of Household Union of America. Attacks against the group by whites resulted in the Elaine race riot (aka, the Elaine Massacre) in Arkansas – the deadliest race riot in U.S. history, with the death of five whites and over a hundred blacks. Against this background of violence, Director Marion McClinton directs this thought-provoking drama about race relations.

Like the play Clybourne Park, the play is set in one location during two different time periods with the characters connected only by location. The play opens immediately following the murder of a black man who was burned to death while his parents could only watch and were unable to help. His parents, Effie (Regina Marie Wlliams) and Virgil (James A. Williams), are poor sharecroppers; Virgil is trying to unionize the black sharecroppers in the area. Effie and Virgil struggle to cope with their loss while Virgil persists with his union organizing efforts. The murderers are their even poorer neighbors Ora (Jennifer Blagen) and Uly (Dan Hopman). These neighbors were often starving and the murdered son had taken pity on them by occasionally bringing Ora vegetables from his family’s garden.

Under pressure by Uly, Ora makes a false accusation of rape and Uly forces Ora to help him burn the son alive. The heart wrenching pain of the two parents is overpowering to the audience but so is the pain of Ora who is both victim and victimizer. She is abused by her husband, but she also committed the murder of man she knew was innocent and is racked with guilt. She desperately seeks Effie’s forgiveness in the hope she can achieve some sort of peace. But for her there is no forgiveness or peace.

The second half of the play is set in the modern day and involves two affluent interracial couples from New York City spending their vacation driving through Arkansas. The same actors play the two couples. The actors’ transition to the new characters is amazing and nothing like their roles in the first half. They spend much of their time avoid talking about race but the topic creeps in and becomes the elephant in the room as the characters learn about the horrible events of 1919.

The second half suffers from comparison with the first half of the play. The 1919 events are played with raw emotions, taut dialog and a compelling horror. In contrast the events of the second half are not particularly compelling and do not work towards a climax. The incredible affluence of the couples unfortunately provides too much distance between them and the characters in the first half and creates a false sense that the past horrors of racism are in the past.

All four actors make an excellent ensemble. In the first half it is a tossup as to whether Williams as Effie or Blagen as Ora portrays the greatest pain but both definitely piece the audience. Williams as Virgil conveys such an angry sorrow that his ultimate decision not to strike back with violence is almost startling. Hopman as Uly is able to play a totally despicable character and, yet, show that his hate is driven by his extreme poverty.

Costume designer Trevor Bowen’s costumes provide an element of realism that help the actors with their transformation from dirt poor sharecroppers to affluent New Yorkers. Set designer Dean Holz successfully takes his set for sharecropper shacks and, with minor modifications, create a Days Inn-type hotel. Katherine Horowitz’s sound design with its background sounds of commotion, fire and gun shots greatly contributes to the overall crisis atmosphere of the play’s first half.

Although the second half of the play has flaws, the compelling nature of the first half makes attendance worthwhile. Ham again succeeds in taking an ugly racial event from our past and forces it into our present consciousness for discussion.

Bev Wolfe