Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Awfully Strange Fruit: 'A Small Oak Tree Runs Red' Presents Powerful Look at a Heinous Past -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A Small Oak Tree Runs Red
a World Premiere play by Lekethia Dalcoe
directed by Harry Lennix
Congo Square Theatre
at Athenaeum Theatre Building, Chicago
Thru July 3

One obviously needn't see a play based in the 19th century to encounter abundant, distressing glimpses of man’s depravity to man (and woman).

Or absolutely abhorrent examples of racism.

But if it hadn’t been so horribly true, it would seem nearly unfathomable that it was once rather commonplace for white folks to lynch blacks in the American south.

And as Lakethia Dalcoe’s fine new play, A Small Oak Tree Runs Red, brutally chronicles, victims were often hung from a noose tied to a tree branch and also—while still alive—stripped, shot, burned, castrated and/or otherwise mutilated.

Which makes for a rather challenging, although rewarding, piece of theater.

Presented by Congo Square Theatre—which identifies itself as presenting "Black theater in Chicago"—and directed by noted TV and film actor Harry Lennix in a small 3rd floor studio in the Athenaeum Theatre building at Southport & Wellington, A Small Oak Tree Runs Red isn’t easy to watch.

Or for me, at least in part, follow.

Dalcoe, a clearly gifted young writer commissioned to pen this World Premiere, creates a scenario involving husband and wife Hayes and Mary Turner (Ronald L. Conner, Tiffany Addison) and their friend Sidney Johnson (Gregory Fenner).

The story takes place after the abolition of slavery, but all three African-Americans remain indentured to the white, unseen Hampton Smith, who we learn regularly beat the men, raped Mary and got his comeuppance.

The play alternates between flashbacks of the trio interacting following their brief freedom with Mar and scenes that take place with them in purgatory, after having been lynched and—almost incomprehensibly—worse.

Quite understandably, much of the dialogue is rather aggrieved or otherwise highly-charged, making for an intensity that made lines occasionally hard to catch and/or digest, and the narrative sometimes difficult to comprehend.

This is exacerbated by the frequent flipping between real-life and the afterlife.

Which doesn't mean the play isn't quite affectingly staged by Lennix, nor that it is lacking in deft dialogue.

A scene where foot-stomping accompanies the characters' shouts truly burns with fury, while the iniquity in their situation is adroitly reflected in lines like:
"I'd rather hope than fight any day."
"The world has turned its back on us a long time ago; I'm just trying to get whatever joy I can."
So whatever I may have missed in terms of specificity, the overall gist was all too devastatingly clear.

The horrors of what I was hearing about--and to some extent seeing  re-enacted quite eerily--were more gripping in their reality than pristine was the play's theatricality, but seeing A Small Oak Tree Runs Red was undeniably a valuable experience.

However dreadfully.

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