Chicago Theatre Review
Shattered Globe’s ‘Heat of the Night’ a Blistering Experience
In The Heat of the Night – Shattered Globe
“In the Heat of the Night” is one of the defining films of the Civil Rights era. Driven by a searing lead performance from Sidney Poitier and featuring one of the more famous lines in film history – “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” – the film’s reputation precedes itself, which explains why I enter Shattered Globe’s theatrical adaptation of the John Ball source novel with a feeling of slight trepidation. Would I spend the show’s 95 minutes comparing it to the Norman Jewison film?
Such fears were sounds quashed by Shattered Globe’s exceptional staging, and we can point to three main reasons why.
First, there is the play’s text, which is downright incendiary in its evocation of the pre-Civil Rights Act South. Simply, Matt Pelfrey’s adaption leaves nothing to the imagination. Words like “boy,” “colored,” and yes, “nigger,” are thrown about with startling fluidity and ease by the show’s white characters. Make no mistake, the Old South was a caste system where African Americans could be murdered for something as minor as addressing a white person in an unflattering tone, and through the brutality of its language, Pelfrey’s play captures that ambience.
Second, there are the actors who bring Pelfrey’s words to life. Whether it is Joseph Wiens’ proudly racist sheriff, Tim Newell’s arrogantly prejudiced businessman, or Steve Peebles’ apartheid-spewing restauranteur, Shattered Globe’s cast is uniformly excellent, and of course, the action is led by the remarkable Manny Buckley, who plays Virgil Tibbs with none of the mannerisms that Poitier brought to his legendary performance. Along with not resembling Poitier, Buckley brings his own voice, his own cadences, his own movements to Tibbs, and never once did Poitier’s Caribbean-inflected voice enter my mind as I watched Buckley on the stage.
Speaking of the stage, the third reason is Shattered Globe’s remarkable staging. Joe Schermoly’s set is a model of understatement – featuring a brick wall painted in a deep black, the only props on the stage are a desk, a countertop, and some chairs; the blackness of the wall is ever apparent, which complements Michael Stanfill’s lighting perfectly. Primarily lit with sidelights, Stanfill is able to create not only the low, soft lighting of a rural Alabama town, but also the heat of the title that pervades each scene; racial tension is not the only thing reaching a boiling point.
Civil rights issues are in the news now more than at any time since the ’60s, yet “Heat of the Night” ends on a decidedly dour note – and I give considerable praise to director Louis Contey for sticking with that dark ending. It is very convenient, amongst today’s protests, for observers to comment on how much things have changed since the Civil Rights Movement, and indeed, the most obvious signs of American racism are no more. But at the same time, black wealth is five percent of white wealth. Black men born today have a one in three chance of imprisonment. And American cities are as segregated and unequal now as they were 60 years ago.
There remains much work to be done, and Shattered Globe has contributed to that dialogue in a serious way.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through June 5 Theater Wit by Shattered Globe Theatre, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Tickets are available by calling 773-975-8150 or by visiting http://www.theaterwit.org
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.