Chicago Theatre Review
We, the Jury, Find the Defendent…
The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker – Black Ensemble Theatre
It’s been shown that history often repeats itself. It’s also said that people can and should learn from the past. In a departure from her wonderfully entertaining musical bio-dramas, Jackie Taylor premieres Ervin Gardner’s new, historical play. Theatergoers may be unfamiliar with Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker, but BET’s current production not only presents a valuable American history lesson, but offers a very entertaining courtroom drama, as well. Even more importantly, theatergoers will witness and learn from an embarrassing chapter from our nation’s history: the 1891 murder trial of Mr. Walker. Taunted and attacked by an inebriated mob, Walker stabbed his white assailant, Patrick Murray, resulting in the man’s death.
The events from this trial are well-documented but, unfortunately, mostly forgotten today. Gardner reminds us of this dark moment in history, telling his story with passion and style in a two-act play that will resonate with all races and genders. Even though this event occurred over 100 years ago, newspapers continue to report additional racially-motivated tragedies today, reminding us that our nation hasn’t evolved that far since 1891. This drama also reminds us that this isn’t simply an event from history, nor is it entirely a play about race. There were real human beings involved in this tragedy, and for that reminder Mr. Gardner must truly be commended for his work.
CoCo Ree Lemry’s beautifully designed turn-of-the-century courtroom setting is classical and roomy enough for characters to move freely, while providing the freedom for witnesses to enter and exit through the audience. There are two galleries, one for either race, positioned at the extreme stage left and right. Above the proceedings, projections taken from period newspapers are flashed during key moments. Ruthanne Swanson’s multitude of well-tailored costumes are luxurious and period-perfect. Every character has three changes, indicating the passage of time, with Leslie Collins, as the defendant’s wife, and the sole woman, becoming the designer’s showpiece. Seated in two balconies above the audience are six musicians, providing an added dimension to this play. In creating their soundtrack, guitars, violins and a keyboard introduce scenes, fill silences and create moods, although sometimes bordering on melodrama.
Ms. Taylor has staged her production with loving care, a firm hand and fine pacing. Her cast is excellent, with Andre Teamer turning in a strong, intelligent and honest performance as Moses Fleetwood Walker. Tamarus Harvell is equally excellent as Weldy Walker, Moses’ passionate, outspoken younger brother. Leslie Collins does well in the role of Arabella Walker, although some of her wailing and weeping treads a line between realism and histrionics. Nick Ferrin is wonderful as Defense Attorney, Harrison Hoyt. He brings a welcomed calm and polish to his role, sporting a refined gentility that speaks volumes. His bombastic adversary, the bigoted Prosecuting Attorney, T.E. Hancock, is played effectively by Jack Birdwell. The actor is locked into the role of villain, but Mr. Birdwell plays Hancock with all the conviction, passion and drive one would expect from this man. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention to Joseph Galizia, James Shinkle and Joey Swift, each displaying their versatility by convincingly playing several very different roles. The three men representing both the black and white spectators, seated in the two galleries, put a nice spin on the Greek chorus, commenting on the proceedings and arguing amongst themselves.
The details of this well-acted, stylishly-produced drama need to be seen and heard first-hand in order to be fully appreciated. First-time playwright Ervin Gardner is off to a good start with this historical drama, although a dramaturg is needed to correct some of the jarring anachronisms within the dialogue. The play is interesting, taut and, besides presenting a forgotten chapter in our nation’s history, serves to remind us that the road to racial harmony is a long, continuous journey that requires constant work.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 7-March 15 by Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-769-4451 or by going to www.blackensembletheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.