By Paula Citron
Cahoots Theatre/Three Ordinary Men, written by Steven Elliott Jackson, directed by Tanisha Taitt, Incubator, Theatre Centre, June 14 to 26.
I am old enough to remember the worldwide outrage that followed the abduction and murder, by Mississippi Ku Klux Klan members, of three young civil rights workers in 1964. Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were in Mississippi for Freedom Summer, the goal being to register Afro-Americans to vote.
The men were missing for 44 days, until a tip led the FBI to their bodies buried in an earthen dam. I also remember the shock of a remark by one of the Klan members, many years after the fact, that the reason these three were particularly targeted was because, and I quote: “they were a N-r and two New York Jews”.
Steven Elliott Jackson’s absorbing new play Three Ordinary Men focuses on the incident, but with a personal take. As Jackson explains in his program notes, most of the writings about the case have been about the aftermath, detailing both the judicial and political consequences. Jackson, on the other hand, wanted to write about the men while they were still alive. “The story that I saw,” he says, “was three ordinary men, people like us or the people we could be.”
Jackson says Three Ordinary Men was perhaps the hardest play he has ever written, and I can understand why. To write about real people is putting words into their mouths about conversations you never heard. If there are monologues, that is presenting their innermost thoughts. As well, the playwright needs characterizations. These protagonists cannot be mere ciphers.
Jackson, in fact, has written a worthy retelling of the story. It’s not perfect — for example, I wanted more private information about Schwerner and Chaney — but is, nonetheless, compelling theatre.
Three Ordinary Men presents us with very strong portrayals, brought to the stage by very strong actors, detailing the last day of the men’s lives. We meet them first as they go to see what they can salvage from a fire (courtesy of the Klan) at Mt. Zion Methodist Church, which had been one of the Freedom Schools. What follows is how they fell into the clutches of the Klan, and their subsequent deaths.
Michael Schwerner (Tristan Claxton) is the team leader, and he is presented as someone consumed by guilt, blaming himself for the fire. In a monologue, he talks about his confused relationship with his wife Rita, and their role in the field office. Yet, you absolutely believe in his commitment to fighting for civil rights for Black Americans. Jackson has written Schwerner as a man of intriguing complexities, both vulnerable and forceful at the same time, and Claxton plays him like a tightly coiled spring, full of nervous energy.
Mississippi-native James Chaney (Jamar Adams-Thompson) became a civil rights activist when he was just 15 and still in high school. Jackson sees him as an island of calm, but then, he’s local and understands the segregated South. He is close to Schwerner, and we can see the warmth between them, but he also knows that the leader has made mistakes. In his monologue, we get almost a bemused observation of the two Whites he is working with. Adams-Thompson plays to Chaney’s strength, and anchors the other two actors.
Andrew Goodman (Jack Copland) is the new kid on the block, and we find out a lot about him, more than we do about the others. We hear about his very liberal family, and the fact that he has come to join Freedom Summer straight out of college. He is endearingly talkative and enthusiastic, much to the annoyance of Schwerner. Copland’s performance is bright and vibrant, and a good contrast to Claxton’s dour personality, and Adams-Thompson’s monolithic rock.
Cahoots’ artistic director Tanisha Taitt has functioned as dramaturge, director and set designer. As mentioned before, she has brought out extremely strong performances from the actors, but Taitt deserves particular commendation for her set design. Nothing could be simpler, yet it is also incredibly powerful. On the back wall is a sheet that has been burned at the edges. It functions as a screen which shows spot-on video and still projections by Shawn Henry.
We see the Mississippi highway that the men travel down, along with the alarming headlights of the Klan cars that follow them, but we also have glimpses of Freedom Fighters, and protests. In other words, the visuals move from the specific (the three men) to the bigger picture, and back again, and it helps tell the story of Freedom Summer.
There are also four white cubes that act as car seats, for example, which Taitt has the actors move around with a minimum of fuss. Henry also did the lighting, and these cubes have interior lights of various colours which are manipulated in striking fashion. In fact, these lights become almost characters in the show. Christopher-Elizabeth’s dramatic sound design is filled with car doors opening and closing, and ominous footsteps, and police sirens, and jail doors clanging shut.
Claudia Tam did the costume and props, and between their haircuts and clothes, and even their wristwatches, Claxton, Adams-Thompson and Copland could be right out of the 60s in their slacks and short-sleeved shirts. In impressive fashion, the theatrical values of this production, though small and contained, are particularly well thought out.
Cahoots Theatre has been going strong for 35 years with a mandate for producing new Canadian plays anchored in cultural diversity. Three Ordinary Men is another production to add to their distinguished repertoire.