Chicago Theatre Review
America’s Racial Caste System Brilliantly Exposed in Congo Square’s ‘Small Oak Tree Runs Red’
Small Oak Tree Runs Red – Congo Theatre
“I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees. My mind was filled with the image of a black man, younger than I, perhaps, or my own age, hanging from a tree, while white men watched him and cut his sex from him with a knife.” – James Baldwin, ‘Nobody Knows My Name’
“Black children are not allowed to be children. They are not allowed to be safe, not at home, not at pool parties, not driving or sitting in cars listening to music, not walking down the street, not in school. For black children, for black people, to exist is to be endangered. Our bodies receive no sanctity or safe harbor. We can never forget this truth. We are never allowed to forget this truth.” – Roxane Gay, the Oct. 29, 2015 edition of The New York Times
Here are the facts:
- From 1877 to 1950, there were 4,075 lynchings across 12 Southern states.
- Many of those lynchings were for the most insignificant of reasons. In 1918, Private Charles Lewis was lynched in Hickman, Kentucky for refusing to empty his pockets while wearing his Army uniform; in 1916, Jeff Brown was lynched in Cedarbluff, Mississippi for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he ran to catch a train; and in 1940, Jesse Thornton was lynched in Luverne, Alabama for referring to a white police officer without the title of “mister.”
- Lynchings were major public events with thousands of attendees. When teenager Jesse Washington was lynched in Waco, Texas on May 15, 1916, more than 10,000 people watched as Washington was castrated, dismembered, and burned alive across a two-hour span; his charred remains were dragged through town, and his body parts were sold as souvenirs.
- No African American in the South was safe from lynching. When she protested the lynching of her husband, nineteen-year-old Mary Turner – who was eight-months pregnant – was herself lynched before a mob of several hundred in Lowndes County, Georgia. Turner was tied by her ankles and hung upside down from a tree; then, she was doused with gasoline and burned alive; before she died, a member of the mob split open her abdomen, and Turner’s unborn child – after falling to the ground and emitting a faint cry – was stomped to death; in her final moments, Turner’s body was riddled with hundreds of bullets.
I stress those facts, stories, and quotations for two reasons: firstly, America’s history of racial terrorism, torture, and murder has been all but wiped clean from the mainstream historical record, and for obvious reasons – White America’s treatment of its Black population, from 1619 to the present day, represents an unfathomable, unique evil, one as intertwined in the country’s history as the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the stars and stripes; and secondly, America’s legacy of lynching and mutilation – specifically, the horrifying story of Mary Turner, her husband Hayes, and their friend Sidney Johnson – forms the backbone of Lekethia Dalcoe’s extraordinary play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red,” which is receiving its world-premiere production by Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum.
Combining elements of historical drama, magical realism, and Southern gothic (especially in the stunning stage design of Andrei Onegin), “Small Oak Tree” pivots between two worlds as its horrifying story develops, one steeped in realism, the other in nightmare. Hayes Turner (Congo Square ensemble member Ronald L. Conner) and Sidney Johnson (passionate newcomer Gregory Fenner) are sharecroppers on the farm of Hampton Smith, a notoriously brutal planter. While Hayes, who remembers all too vividly his experiences on the chain gang, opts to keep his head down and anticipate the birth of his son with his lovely wife Mary (the remarkable Tiffany Addison), Johnson – a convict laborer who, after being arrested for playing dice, was sold to Smith for $30, and has worked unpaid on the farm for three years – is increasingly enraged by his treatment and predicament. Johnson’s response to his post-Emancipation slavery ultimately leads to the deaths of the play’s three leads.
But “Small Oak Tree” is hardly conventional in its narrative structure. While its real-world segments paint a bitter picture of the exploitation and abuse of the sharecropping system, it is the play’s fantastical elements where it (and Dalcoe’s writing) truly shines. Portraying a purgatory-esque world (Richard Norwood’s lighting and Brandon Reed’s sound design are integral elements), the play follows the three leads as they slowly come to grips with the cause of their death and the wider implications of America’s racial caste system. And when the two worlds finally cross paths – when the noose is wrapped around Mary’s neck – the resulting scene, and Addison’s unhinged performance, will rock you to your core.
In his artistic statement accompanying the play, director Harry Lennix – a well-known actor who is familiar to fans of “The Blacklist” and the latter two “Matrix” films – reinforces the importance of the play’s themes.
“Theater and art, in general, are far more tangible ways to administer fairness than politics or law,” Lennix writes. “There has yet to be an official response to slavery and its ugly descendants. Indeed, not so much as an apology has ever been tendered by the United States or any African government for the immeasurable damages of slavery. The toll of this shocking and irrational callousness leaves the mind and soul of Black America in jagged shards.”
This is our country’s history; it must be known, acknowledged, and accepted; and thanks to Dalcoe, Lennix, and the superb efforts of Addison, Conner, Fenner, and the Congo Square team, no attendee of “Small Oak Tree” will leave the theater forgetting that.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through July 3, presented by Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave
Tickets are available by visiting www.congosquaretheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.