A small Tennessee town is witness to the tragic demise of a circus elephant.
Reviewed by Tom Jones,
September 9, 2017
“The circus is coming town” was usually the shout meaning an exciting event was about to make small-town life more interesting. Especially to a muddy Tennessee town whose main claim to fame was that they had a railroad station, where a trainload of circus performers and animals could stop for a day or two to provide entertainment from the outside world.
Such was the case in 1916 when a struggling circus arrived in Erwin, Tennessee. The circus prided itself on owning a few elephants, including the enormous “Mary” that lead the team in the parade and under the big top at every performance. Upon arrival in Erwin, however, a newcomer to the circus crew requested that he be “in charge” of Mary, not realizing that experience in elephant training was a basic requirement. This resulted in the death of the naïve animal trainer, and ultimately of the elephant itself – reportedly the only elephant to be ever lynched.
The play is a staggeringly interesting mix of the excitement of the circus arrival, the subsequent tragic events, and the resulting conflict of reactions of the local populous. This is a haunting tale, and the cast on the dirt-laden stage of the Bas Bleu Theatre is up to the task of providing 75 minutes of non-stop interest. There is no intermission, as various townspeople and circus performers relate what they believe transpired. The mood is amazing, with the feeling of being inside a circus tent, watching the performances of humans playing out their reaction to the tragedy.
There is more going on than the tragic tale told. The author is dealing with the “elephant” in each of our closets – how bigoted we are, how unwilling to overcome racial discrimination. Our lust for blood payment. Although not mentioned in the play, there was a situation in tiny Erwin, Tennessee two years after the elephant was lynched – the lynching of a black person. The “circus” in the play is used as a tool to show how insular we can become – whether it be to our “fellow performers” or our neighbors in insular situations.
The story begins with the Ring Master looking back (from the circus ring) as to what has happened. The show ends with him sitting in the circus ring on an upside-down pail, discussing what he thinks he has seen, and whether it has or has not changed him.
The 14-member cast is flawless, as they individually relate where they fit into the story – never speaking to one another, but always addressing the audience. Nick Holland is the Ring Master, Liam Kelley is the experienced animal trainer who has gained the confidence of the animals. Kate Lewis is the ballet girl, often announcing that she is a “ballet” performer, and not a tawdry novelty. Scott McCoppin is the tour manager, Ken Benda is the strongman who can’t lift much. Elizbeth Kirchmeier is the acrobatic clown who has probably the most challenging time in accepting the death of her dear animal friend. Greg Clark is the local marshal. Jim Valone, the local preacher, desperately wanting some member of his congregation to seek solace in the church. Kaya Rudolph, Tabitha Tyree, and Holly Wedgeworth are local townspeople. Wesley Longacre is a local shovel operator; Drew Cuthbertson, the engineer. Paul Brewer is the guitarist and drummer. The entire cast is on stage the entire time, except when the train engineer is confined to his office. We never meet the red-head youth whose lack of training resulted in his own death.
This is heavy stuff, with no one singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The audience is left to figure out its own reaction to what has transpired, and how it may fit into our own life and world.
Author George Brant received the 2008 Keene Prize for Literature and the 2008 David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award. The writing is impressive. We do not see the lynching of the animal, but are told so vividly what has happened, that we feel as if we were present. The current production is directed by Garrett Ayers who notes ‘…the writer reaches inside the imaginations of the audience. What could be more theatrical and dramatic than that?”
The current art exhibit of Elephant Watercolors by Kimberly Lavelle and Bristlecone Photography by Brian Miller is a beautiful complement to the story being told on the Tom Sutherland Stage.
Bas Bleu Theatre
401 Pine Street
Fort Collins, CO 80554-2433
Bas Bleu Website
To October 8, 2017