Gunshots and wretched grieving mark the opening of "Scapegoat," Christina Ham's new drama about the braided histories of black and white Americans that premiered over the weekend at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. The chaos and tears are from a scene set in 1919, known as the Red Summer because of the amount of blood that was shed during spasms of racial violence.
Onstage in their tidy shack (designed by Dean Holzman), black sharecropper Effie Reynolds (Regina Marie Williams) tries to restrain her husband, Virgil Hillman (James A. Williams), a union organizer. The pair just lost their twenty-something son to a white mob led by their neighbors, Uly Gibson (Dan Hopman), and his much-abused wife, Ora (Jennifer Blagen). Uly cut up the young man's body for souvenirs and Ora lit the match that burned the rest of his remains.
Virgil, a World War I veteran through service with the French, wants to go out there with his gun to meet the mob. Effie, by turns lucid and overcome with grief, blocks him at the door. She does not want to lose the only two men she has in her life on the same day.
Ham employs deft language that suggests, in flashes, Shakespeare and August Wilson. She has a knack for dialogue and for getting at the emotions of her characters, at least in the first act. "Scapegoat" is set in 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, where hundreds of black sharecroppers trying to unionize were massacred, and in contemporary times as two well-heeled New York couples take a road trip through the south.
"Scapegoat" earnestly seeks to show how the past influences the present, a tack that many a playwright has taken, including Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard. In Churchill's "Top Girls," historical characters show up in contemporary times. Stoppard's "Arcadia" merges past and present simultaneously. Ham keeps the eras discrete, delivering a first act that's forceful and visceral and a second act that's talky and perhaps a little too subtle.
Her characters, all interracially married in an alleged post-racial world in the second act, are wittingly and unwittingly unaware of history. Over the course of the too-long second act, they talk their way from blithe ignorance to some semblance of historical truth.
"Scapegoat" is a gift to actors, including this stellar cast that gets to show its range under Marion McClinton's alternately muscular and passive direction. All four performers deliver raw emotions, and the truth can be ugly, in the first act, where their drab historical costumes (designed by Trevor Bowen) also tell on them. Regina Marie Williams taps a deep emotional well to spill Effie's affecting grief. As she stands strong and as she collapses, she draws both sympathy and empathy for a mother's pain. James A. Williams shows us Virgil's bridling anger in the slit of his eyes and in his bucking body. But the actor also shows us Virgil's reason, as he willingly pulls back from something he may not live to regret.
Blagen's Ora is a complicated character, an instigator of violence and a victim herself. Blagen navigates the split to draw us into her orbit. Hopman's Uly is perhaps the least sympathetic, a character who is wantonly vile.
The actors all become beautiful and loving in the second act, where they move with the grace of dancers and where their contemporary manners and behaviors, from canoodling to sharing secrets, is often too cute. Their transformation is striking.
With "Scapegoat," playwright Ham shows two prosperous couples who are blithely naive about the history of the place where they eat and sleep and play. She wants us to see how the joy we have today is tied to a less savory past that's worth examining, even as we celebrate our good fortune. It's okay, "Scapegoat" says, to do both.