by Lynn on June 16, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Theatre Centre, Toronto, 1115 Queen St. W., until June 26, 2022.

Written by Steven Elliott Jackson

Directed by Tanisha Taitt

Set by Tanisha Taitt

Lighting and projection design, by Shawn Henry

Sound design by Christopher-Elizabeth

Costumes and props by Claudia Tam

Cast: Tristan Claxton

Jamar Adams-Thompson

Jack Copland

Background. Three Ordinary Men is based on a true story. It took place in 1964 in Mississippi. Three civil rights workers: Michael Schwerner, Jewish from New York, Andrew Goodman, Jewish from New York and James Chaney, African-American from Mississippi were there to encourage African-Americans to register to vote. Until that time African-Americans had been thwarted in their right to vote. The three civil rights workers were there to help as much as possible. It was not an easy assignment.

Director Tanisha Taitt effectively sets the audience in those turbulent times as they file into the theatre. A projection of a church appears on a sheet upstage. Flickering in one of the windows are flames. The flames spread to the other window and soon envelopes the church. By the time the audience is fully in the space and the show is about to begin, the church has been burned to the ground. Nothing but ash is left.

Michael Schwerner (Tristan Claxton) is driving James Chaney (Jamar Adams-Thompson) and Andrew Goodman (Jack Copland) to the burned-out church to see the damage and to prepare to re-build the place and meet with the small congregation. They are in Schwerner’s old station wagon.  The actors sit on simple white cubes to simulate driving etc.

Schwerner and Chaney are old friends and colleagues. Schwerner has spent time in Mississippi getting to know the people. He is serious about his work and very focused. Chaney knows Mississippi and the people there because he lives there. Because he is African-American he knows the trials and tribulations of Black people in that area that his two white friends can never understand. He still respects and appreciates his two colleagues, but there is that innate sense as a Black man that the others could never appreciate. Writer Steven Elliott Jackson gives Chaney lines that illuminate that difference. For example, Chaney lets it be known that his mother’s house was shot at as a kind of warning. The others are horrified. Chaney tries to make light of it saying his mother collects the bullets in a little container.

Both Schwerner and Chaney muse about Goodman. He’s young, clean-cut, always smiling, eager to please and wants to help. I think they find his innocence endearing.

At times Steven Elliott Jackson’s dialogue seems simplistic but one must remember it’s 1964. Goodman talks about wanting to get to know Black people. He’s met Jackie Robinson. He wants to help. Even so, we hear the same dialogue today and that too seems patronizing. In any case Chaney has left his comfort zone to come south to help.

In a sweet scene, that shows his naivety, he writes a postcard to his parents to tell them everything is fine and that the people of Mississippi are friendly etc. neglecting to say that some of those good Mississippians just burned down a church in which African-Americans worshiped.

For much of the play, Steven Elliott Jackson slowly reveals the personalities of the characters with easy banter. Chaney who has so much to lose as a Black man is always trying to reassure Schwerner that something that happened is ‘not your fault.’ He is the one trying to calm the others who might be a little ‘anxious’ at things that are happening. Schwerner talks of his wife Rita back home, with great love and respect. Rita was feistier than he was he notes. Andrew Goodman pines for his girlfriend Ruth. All of them are family oriented and dedicated to this cause.   

 But then things ramp up. The three are arrested for speeding but they know it’s a phony charge. Director Tanisha Taitt has an American flag projected on the sheet at the back and the three men walk on bent over slightly, their arms together in front of them, as if in chains. It looked as if she was trying to simulate that they were slaves in chains. I can appreciate the thought, but I found that a touch heavy-handed. Taitt also uses many projections of mug shots of people that are confusing and unexplained, and other actual projections of news items. Taitt is a thoughtful director but at times less projections are best in telling the story.

The three are eventually released and are allowed to leave. Each man sits on a cube as Schwerner drives carefully away. The scene is directed with an economy of movement with ever increasing ramped up emotion.  Schwerner sees several headlights in the read-view mirror following their car. (this is not a spoiler—this is history.) The headlights of the cars are projected on the sheet at the back.  Chaney tries to keep everybody calm and Goodman doesn’t seem to get what is happening or how dangerous this is.

Tristan Claxton as Michael Schwerner is the most serious of the three. He is often intense to the point of almost exploding. There are early scenes that could do with being more tempered so that the last harrowing scene is not really that anticipated or weakened because he exploded so easy earlier. More nuance would be effective. Jack Copland as Andrew Goodman imbues his character with sweetness that verges on naivety. He’s a decent man who just wanted to do good. As James Chaney, Jamar Adams-Thompson is the most complex character of the three, and Adams-Thompson plays him with contained grace, as a man who could not show his inner rage of frustration in that town because he was African-American.

Three Ordinary Men is about a terrible time in America that led to change. More change is needed. The play reminds us of that. Well worth a visit to the Theatre Centre.  

Cahoots Theatre presents:

Runs until: June 26, 2022

Running time: 70 minutes.

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