REVIEW: “Untitled Reconstruction Play” Confronts Spartanburg’s Ugly Racist Past

Photo by Andrea Azumendi
Photo by Andrea Azumendi

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Everyone is aware of South Carolina’s role in the Civil War as the first to secede from the Union and our state’s twisted love-hate relationship with the Confederate Flag that was still flying in the capital until last July. But most Spartanburg County residents are not as familiar with the ugly history that transpired right here in our own backyard after the Reconstruction.

Playwright Anna Abhau Elliott hopes to change that with her new “Untitled Reconstruction Play,” a collaborative work with the nonprofit Breaking Down Barriers that debuts tonight at the Chapman Cultural Center’s Black Box Theatre.

Elliott, the 2015 Spartanburg Hub-Bub artist-in-residence and author of last year’s “Ghost Variations,” adapted the text of the play from a transcript of congressional committee hearings on Ku-Klux Klan activities held in the Upstate in 1871.

The script highlights four of the testimonies of both black and whites who lived in rural parts of the county such as Glenn Springs and Cowpens. One such elderly farmer, played by Spartanburg attorney James Cheek, spoke of his life “before freedom came” and the terror and intimidation inflicted on him and his family by local members of the Ku-Klux Klan, some whom he recognizes underneath their bed sheets, tassels, horns and masks they wear in veiled attempts to disguise their appearance.

Chandler Crawford, who also directs, plays a white man who, threatened with death,  is forced to publicly renounce his affiliation with the Radical Republican party and join his neighbors in the Democratic party, while Crystal Irby and Chauncey Meeks-Owens are African-Americans who relay their violent stories of  persecution by the Klan, using the dialect and terms of the day such as “Ku-Kluxed,” “helloed” and “brickety,” which means fidgety.

Zach Ellis and Cody Owens are noble as Yankee congressmen who are sympathetic to their witnesses, but  Stephen Harris shines as the callous democratic senator from Ohio whose mission is to discredit their testimonies, often interrogating them under the light of a single naked lightbulb.

But as horrifying as the reenactments are to re-live, the second part written by some of the cast members is equally poignant and  powerful. Ellis’s parallels the political and civil rights advances made in the Reconstruction (and handily rolled back afterwards) with the struggle nearly 100 years of activists like Matthew James Perry, Jr., who valiantly fought to integrate SC colleges and was the first African American Federal Judge, and former Majority Whip James Clyburn’s meager beginnings as a social studies teacher at Carver High School.

And the piece is neatly bookended with a provocative original spoken word piece by Marlanda Dekine (Executive director of Speaking Down Barriers) with Ms. Irby and Ada Bennett.

Crawford had instilled a highly-effective sound design with negro spirituals and haunting sound effects for this emotional play that is still somewhat raw and is presented more as a workshop than polished production. There is also some repetition in the script, which is mostly due to the source transcripts, but its message is the star in this documentary theatre piece.

Recent USC-Upstate graduate Andrea Azumendi is stage manager for  “Untitled Reconstruction Play” with Sharia Fitzpatrick assisting.

Elliot’s readily admits this work does not attempt to provide answers, but she hopes it will launch a dialogue on race and racism, one that  Ms. Dekine will facilitate after the performance.

“Untitled Reconstruction Play” is funded in part by The Arts Partnership of Greater Spartanburg, its donors, the County and City of Spartanburg, and the South Carolina Arts Commission which receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John and Susan Bennett Memorial Arts Fund of the Coastal Community Foundation of SC. The theater space is a generous donation from The Spartanburg Little Theatre.

“Untitled Reconstruction Play” runs tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Chapman Cultural Center’s Black Box Theatre. There is a wait-list for Friday’s show but tickets are still available for the Satuirday performance. Tickets are $10 and all proceeds will benefit Speaking Down Barriers. Visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/untitled-reconstruction-play-tickets-25179489531

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