On the surface, a play about JonBenét Ramsey seems like a violation. Especially in Boulder, where the six-year-old was murdered on Christmas night 1996 and more than twenty years later, people still recall hearing about the strangled body discovered in the basement; the peculiar, long handwritten ransom note left on a staircase; the images of the child performing sexily in beauty pageants; the years of wrangling about who committed the murder; and the infuriating lack of an answer. Gregory S. Moss’s House of Gold, with its lurid imagery and cartoonish characters, every one of them lusting for JonBenét’s body, could be classified as the ultimate violation. As I watched, I found myself shifting constantly from one conclusion to the other.
The play, now making its regional premiere at the Atlas Black Box theater, is episodic, the set crayon-bright, the language graphic, and the characters intended as symbolic. So the figures who represent John and Patsy Ramsey are titled Man and Woman (perhaps Moss was anxious to avoid legal action from the famously litigious John); there are three bare-chested males labeled the Apollonian Boys — ironically, since they create chaos rather than order — and also a thirteen-year-old neighbor who’s white but sees himself as black. Woman and Man are monstrous — she full of overblown ambition, he equally full of strange contradictions — but the play also throws a nod to the widespread speculation that JonBenét was killed by an outsider when a photographer lures her into his van with a story about a lost pregnant cat. Many ugly actions take place: At one point, JonBenét kneels to offer a blow job; the Apollonian boys transform into Ku Klux Klanners and threaten a lynching; the dialogue in the first scene is stomach-turning. But because the tone is stylized, these events aren’t as deeply upsetting as they could be.
It helps that artistic director Emily K. Harrison plays JonBenét. Without simpering or being annoyingly cute, she conveys the key fact that sometimes gets buried in all the talk of beauty pageants, wealth and incompetent prosecution: JonBenét was a child who should have been nurtured and protected but was betrayed. Harrison’s JonBenét is trusting, genuinely childish and entirely without guile, which makes her weary acceptance of the sexual violations she routinely encounters doubly moving. At one point, she goes up to the attic, where there’s a pillow-stuffed figure dressed as Santa Claus, slips a small book from the figure’s pocket and begins reading “The Little Black Boy” from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
I don’t know why Square Product Theatre chose the Santa suit — apparently the script never specifies who this figure represents, perhaps a grandfather — but many of us remember that a Santa figured prominently in the JonBenét narrative. He was onetime journalism professor Bill McReynolds, a kindly, imaginative man who loved playing the role and was sometimes seen ho-ho-ho-ing along Pearl Street during the holidays. The Ramseys hired him for their Christmas party, three days before the murder; afterward, they pointed a finger at him. The police never really suspected McReynolds, but he was still investigated relentlessly for two years. The experience broke him, according to his wife, Janet, and he died in 2002. McReynolds was a true innocent, and I found JonBenét’s visit to Santa for comfort genuinely touching, though Moss’s use of the poem is ambiguous.
Once all children are released from external reality, says Blake’s black boy of his white counterpart, “I’ll shield him from the heat till he can bear/To lean in joy upon our father’s knee/And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair/And be like him and he will then love me.” Beautiful and evocative, but why a poem about race? Why the white neighbor who thinks he’s black? According to the program, the play is meant to symbolize almost everything wrong in American culture. So JonBenét becomes every brutalized little girl, as well as every wronged woman. Racism seems thrown in just to emphasize the Ramseys’ whiteness and wealth and validate the use of that ridiculously overused word, “privilege.”
As an impressionistic exploration of evil, a take on the sheer horror of JonBenét’s murder, House of Gold is absorbing and effective. But when it flattens this once-living-and-breathing child into a symbol, it does feel like a violation.
House of Gold, presented by Square Product Theatre through August 12, Atlas Black Box theater, University of Colorado Boulder, squareproducttheatre.org.