REVIEW: ‘Untitled Reconstruction Project’ Recounts Spartanburg’s Ugly History with the Racism

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BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

As remnants of the Confederacy are slowly being plucked out of the public eye including flags, statutes and even namesakes – controversy surrounds Spartanburg’s newest elementary school in Drayton and Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, and an elementary school in Mississippi just this week changed its’s name from Jefferson Davis to Barak Obama after our nation’s first African-American president – will all of the progress in combatting racism be undone in the Trump era?  Will the pendulum swing back alt-right in the public consciousness just like it did after the Reconstruction South.

That’s the conundrum posed in “Untitled Reconstruction Project,” a play by Anna Abhau Elliott that is a part-documentary and part-devised work of theatre now being staged at Spartanburg Headquarters Library.

Compelling, informative and heartbreaking, “Untitled Reconstruction Project” sheds light on the ugly truth and racist past of Spartanburg County.

First mounted in May 2016 with many of the same artists and actors, Elliot’s work has been revised and polished and is being presented in partnership with the Spartanburg Library and Speaking Down Barriers, the local nonprofit that facilitates community dialogue to acknowledge and heal from the wounds of racism in American society.

Derived from research with librarians and archivists at the Spartanburg Public Library and Wofford College, much of the text is from transcripts of a Federal investigation in Spartanburg County of Ku Klux Klan activities and interviews with residents from communities such as Glenn Spring and Cowpens. These citizens, both black and white, spoke out publicly about being terrorized and threatened for joining the Republican (Radical) party.

The script highlights four of those testimonies such as James, spoken through a recording by Spartanburg attorney James Cheek, who recounts his first encounter with the Ku-Klux Klan in Woodruff. Jason Battle plays an African-American who tells his story of being threatened with a drawing hanging from a tree.

Crystal Irby, who also directs this play, embodies the part of Harriet, who recalls being beaten and threatened by the KKK, several members whom she recognizes despite their attempts to hide their identities. This character is also noteworthy in that her genealogy is later traced through census records from her family’s native land, enslavement and freedom to almost modern day.

Mark Byrnes, Wofford Professor and History department chair, a white man who, threatened with death, is forced to renounce his affiliation with the Radical Republican party and join his racist neighbors in the Democratic party.

The play is further enhanced and colloquialized by the dialect and terms of the day such as “Ku-Kluxed,” “doe-face” (a mask) and “brickety,” which means fidgety.

Conner Vetter and Cody Owens are riveting as Northern congressmen who are sympathetic to their witnesses, but Stephen Harris shines and is deliciously terrifying as the callous democratic senator from Ohio whose mission is to dissect their testimonies and in new material, tries to discredit his fellow colleagues on the committee.

And through a tattered scroll, Vetter recounts the political and civil rights advances made in the Reconstruction (and later quashed) with the brief term of South Carolina’s Joseph Rainey, a former slave who became the first African-American to serve in Congress; Matthew James Perry, Jr., who valiantly fought to integrate SC colleges (including Wofford College) and was the first African-American Federal Judge; former Majority Whip James Clyburn’s meager beginnings as a social studies teacher at Carver High School; the end of Jim Crow laws;  the election of President Barak Obama; SC’s first African-American in the U.S. Senate; up to the devastating massacre at an African-American church in Charleston.

Throughout the play are woven powerful and provocative original spoken word pieces by Marlanda Dekine (Executive director of Speaking Down Barriers) and other contributing artists and negro spirituals led by musician Janae O’Shields.

Stephanie Ibbotson is sound designer and Ary Fleming and Carey Webster are Stage Managers for this production.

Also on display is an exhibit of historical materials provided by the Spartanburg Public Library’s Kennedy Room of local and South Carolina History and the Cleveland Genealogy Department about the Spartanburg residents who are referenced in the play.

“Untitled Reconstruction Project” continues Saturday and Oct 21 and 22 at 3 p.m. in the Barrett Room at Spartanburg Public Library Headquarters. Speaking Down Barriers, an area nonprofit and production collaborator, will facilitate conversation about race and racism after the show. Admission to “Untitled Reconstruction Project” is free. Tickets can be reserved online at https://www.facebook.com/untitledrec/.

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