You’re at the theater. The lights lower down into a harsh, red tone as the soundscape of a riot plays and the worst screaming you’ll ever hear pierces your ears. Immediately you are thrown into the fall of 1919 in Elaine, AK as Effie Reynolds (Regina Marie Williams) argues with her husband Virgil Hillman (James A. Williams) about letting their son be burned alive outside their home.
Scapegoat is intense from the first moment, grabbing its audience by the collar and never letting go. Focusing on two different story lines in the same Arkansas town and four different couples, the play grapples with how the past continues to haunt the present. Virgil and Effie, who are mourning the murder of their son, are also struggling to take care of their farm without the extra help. Plagued by guilt and in some way responsible for their son’s murder, Ora Gibson (Jennifer Blagen) returns vegetables that her husband Uly (Dan Hopman) has stolen after assisting in the murder. Ora pleads with Effie to let her help with harvesting cotton to assuage her guilt, though Effie is furious with her for the lies that appeared about her son’s relationship with Ora. Meanwhile, Virgil is organizing a union of black sharecroppers to fight for better returns on their crops. Tensions rise as Ora continues to be haunted by Effie and Virgil’s son and Uly plans to stop Virgil’s efforts.
In the present day, Paula and Russell Barnes (Regina Marie Williams and Dan Hopman) and Elaine and Greg Macaslan (Jennifer Blagen and James A. Williams) are on vacation from their homes in New York City and driving through the rural South. Russell is peeved with Greg for his continual comments on race and the groups toys with the idea of trying not to talk about such issues, which becomes impossible when they discover the past of the town around them.
Double casting can be tricky in a show, but in this piece, it not only works brilliantly, it’s necessary. The quote from Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past” applies here, in a town that may have forgotten what occurred but the resonance of the tragedy still hangs in the air. The mixed-race relationships between the characters compared against the relationships of the first act allows for a deep, dense conversation about race and marriage that, due to the dual roles, allows for a continual looking forward and looking back. The poverty of the sharecroppers (especially the “white trash” look of Ora painfully displayed in a dress made from a burlap sack by costumer Trevor Bowen) contrasts sharply with the well-off Ivy league professionals who complain about the hotel not having room service, while still leaving room for different conversations of privilege (such as Elaine’s eagerness to learn about the history of the town while Greg and Paula don’t want to “play Roots.”)
There’s a lot going on in this show and a great deal of ground being covered in an enthralling two hours, focusing on the intersections of race, class, gender, families and raising children, relationships, adoption, and history. The dramatic irony of the audience knowing the history of the town before the characters in Act 2 discover it adds a wonderful layer on top of the conversations they have and makes their realization of it all the more effective. Regarding the title of the play, there is no singular scapegoat in the show, but instead a look at all the different things receive blame or become the reason to avoid discussing certain topics. Virgil and Effie’s son the one person who receives blame but is actually innocent. Other elements become scapegoats however – Ora blames herself for the death and searches for a way to resolve the issue while Virgil and Effie blame her and her husband for what happened. In the second act, different rationales are blamed for avoiding the conversation of race – not finding it appropriate to discuss with children, wanting to have a vacation and leave these issues behind, etc. However, no blame is clearly laid out. Understanding is expressed for all characters, even the violent Uly who desperately wants to own his own farm. As the characters grapple to understand in the second act, Elaine’s powerfully expresses what it’s like to try and understand race as a white person -no matter how much you learn, it will never be enough – while Greg and Paula personally dismantle the idea of a “post-racial society.” In some ways, the show reminds of Clybourne Park (the double casting, the use of the similar setting switching between past and present) but, where Clybourne fails to have a nuanced discussion and lays blame in the wrong places, Scapegoat marvelously succeeds and delves into an honest and more sincere look at modern day racial understanding.
The writing by the impeccable Christina Ham is full of pithy, wise lines that roll naturally off the tongue and can’t help but illicit sounds of agreement and awe from the audience. Ham’s trend of focusing on little-known or overlooked history (as previously seen in Ruby! and Nina Simone: Four Women) works powerfully with the issues at hand – Uly says at the end of Act 1 that the town will soon forget the events that have occurred and in Act 2, the characters remark on how quickly we’ve forgotten the deaths of those like Michael Brown. The tension of not wanting to know the past because of its horror and needing to remember it to pay respects and spur justice weaves in between the horror of learning just how nightmarish the past can be – and how the nightmare never really leave. Though never seen, only heard, the presence of the dead son haunts every line and the scream at the beginning never entire fades from the ears. Though the show is full of wonderful humor and wit, there is also a layer of despair and horror – a horror at realizing that many of these things are so terrible because they are true.
With a smooth set designed by Dean Holzman with props by Kellie Larson that cleverly moves from two sharecropper homes into two hotel rooms, sound design by Katherine Horowitz that manages to capture a leak in a tin roof without ever having to see the roof, and powerful lighting design by Michael Wangen, this show is a tour-de-force all around. I have the tendency to get really excited about each show I see, but this one hit a really unique chord in my mind. It’s the sort of show that I want to drag all of my friends to, the kind I wish my family in Indiana could see, the kind I want to force Donald Trump to see. If there’s any show that demands to be seen right now, it’s this one. And it absolutely cannot be missed.
Scapegoat is written by Christina Ham and directed by Marion McClinton. It is playing at Pillsbury House Theatre now through June 26th. Show and ticket information can be found on Pillsbury House’s website.