Despite recent events in Jasper, Texas, it's difficult to imagine a group of modern white men brazen enough to pose for a snapshot as they gather around a black man's mangled and lynched body swaying from a tree amid the tranquility of a Southern forest. More difficult still is to search through a historical archive and examine such photographs, which have been taken with alarming regularity throughout this century. Occasionally a teenager or two is sitting in the grass with the cowardly menfolk, some of whom are proudly smiling at the camera as if they were an elite coterie of blue-ribbon winners at the local state fair.
As shocking as it is to look at the icons of racial ignominy, it's even more unsettling to listen to an accounting of the actions that caused such horrors. For in so doing, we're no longer permitted the excuse of feigning lack of interest the moment a television documentary or magazine feature depicts a particularly unsettling image of brutality. In fact, audience members who attend a local production of Max Sparber's play Minstrel Show: The Lynching of William Brown at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre are forced to become responsible witnesses to a perverse series of occurrences that brought about the worst race riots in the history of the state of Nebraska.
Under the able and inventive direction of Laura Partridge, two black minstrel-show performers, Gus (David Lewis) and Sam (Jonathan Wilson), recount the real-life saga of an acutely rheumatoid black man, referred to throughout the evening as "the Negro William Brown," who in 1919 was lynched by a mob whipped to a frenzy by a white woman's specious accusation that Brown had assaulted her. Detained by the Omaha police on a pretense of having committed some petty offense (in those days, failing to surrender the sidewalk to a white man constituted a punishable crime), the two song-and-dance artists are held prisoner, along with Brown, at the town's epicenter of injustice, the Douglas County courthouse. As performed on a bare stage adorned with two prop boxes and a small oval platform, Gus and Sam's gripping story reaches its awful climax when they describe the mob hysteria of the local "yahoos" and "Johnny Bulls," as they refer to Omaha's white citizens. Without so much as a mock trial, the Johnny Bulls summarily burn down the courthouse, string up the frantic Brown from a lamppost, and permit a group of cheering schoolchildren to blithely desecrate Brown's remains by dragging his bullet-ridden and burned corpse through the town's streets.
The seventy-minute intermissionless drama (it's essentially two well-acted monologues framed by a few songs and lighthearted anecdotes) is compelling, but the evening would be even more riveting if playwright Sparber were to permit his talented performers to frequently interrupt, argue with and embellish each other's memories along the way; as it is, the playwright fills the first twenty minutes of the show with repeated references to the tale we're about to hear. Still, when Wilson picks up the narrative from Lewis and eloquently describes Brown's harrowing ordeal, we become dumbstruck bystanders of events too terrible to fully comprehend. And as the reality of what happened that fateful September night slowly sinks in, we ultimately find ourselves rendering the only verdict we're able--a silent, absolute assent--as Gus speaks the drama's final words: "We're witnesses to history. We want it told, and we want it told right."
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Minstrel Show: The Lynching of William Brown, presented by Front Row Center Productions through August 30 at the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre, 119 Park Avenue West, 308-1080.