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A CurtainUp Review
Minstrel Show or The Lynching Of William Brown
By Les Gutman
Intellectually, we all know that there is nothing more frightening, or loathsome, than the idea of a hate-filled mob intent on committing acts of violence or, worse yet, a lynching. It's something we'd rather not think about. Those who have experienced such a horror are reluctant to speak of it; everyone else is hesitant to listen.
The 1919 lynching at the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska (an actual historical event) was witnessed by the two characters in this play. Performers in a black minstrel show, they are identified only as Yas - Yas (Spencer Scott Barros) and Sho - Nuff (Tim Cain). The target of the lynching was a rheumatic man by the name of William Brown. White people in Omaha always referred to him as "the Negro William Brown". He had been accused of molesting a white girl.
The two traveling performers have been called before an ad-hoc committee to find out about the events of that day. They have not found Omaha particularly hospitable. When they performed their otherwise highly-regarded act, "Tableau of Negro Life," they ended up at the wrong end of some bats and planks wielded by a dozen men with burlap sacks on their head. The police came along and arrested them (it seems it's "a crime for a Negro to be beaten" in Omaha), parading them to jail past a crowd of spitting, cursing white people. "Y'all got yourself the Negro William Brown to thank for this," they were told.
Fearing they will be arrested again, Yas - Yas, who does most of the talking, is reluctant to speak. They hesitate, they talk about their act, they perform a few sketches from it. A few facts trickle out but the overall impression of the show after fifteen minutes is that it's a waste of time. Stay in your seats. Your investment is about to be redeemed.
These two were indeed in the courthouse as William Brown's lynch mob began to form. But it must fall to Sho - Nuff to tell the story; his partner had been knocked unconscious before it began, and Sho - Nuff hasn't had the temerity to tell it, even to him. It's a horrific, compelling, masterful story: enough to take the starch out of anyone's collar. They speculated what protection they had if they told the story. They answered, correctly, "the truth."
Much has been written in the last year or so about the fine art of Irish storytelling, and the way it has erupted onto our stages. (In particular, see CurtainUp's reviews of the plays of Conor McPherson, linked below.) Messrs. Barros and Cain remind us quite vividly that African - American story-telling can be its equal or better. By using two storytellers, Max Sparber is able to provide more dimension, and the give-and-take permits the unique rhythms of this tradition to shine through.
On Sandra Goldmark's detailed set of the charred remains of the courthouse, Rob Urbinati stages this "show" in a simple straightforward manner. Apt costumes and especially effective lighting and sound design support his effort, although with respect to the latter, an acoustical echo I don't recall ever before in this space muffled the actors' voices a bit at times.
In the end, the duo decides, as have Holocaust survivors and witnesses to other despicable events, that they must go on telling their story. Audiences should decide to listen.
LINKS TO REVIEWS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of Conor McPherson's The Weir
CurtainUp's review of Conor McPherson's This Lime Tree Bower