By Nicole Rhoden
Chicago Dramatists Theater’s current production, Southbridge, is inspired by a true, tragic tale set in 1881 in Athens, Ohio, when a young African-American man named Christopher C. Davis was accused of the brutal murder of a White woman.
The most recent endeavor of Dramatists resident playwright and author Reginald Edmund, Southbridge, directed by Dramatists artistic director Russ Tutterow, runs through March 3 at the theater located at 1105 West Chicago Avenue.
In the play, as an angry mob is at the jailhouse door demanding that the sheriff lynch the accused murderer, the young Black man accused of the crime must relive the events that led him to the hangman’s tree in order to reveal the truth in a story that becomes part spiritual quest and part murder mystery. Though playwright Edmund was able to only find a few articles covering the Athens tragedy, the facts of the story provided ample inspiration. The writer was also able to piece together other clues, like the drop in Athens’ African-American population after the violent incident, suggesting that many residents no longer felt safe.
“The facts are there,” says Edmund of how much history stayed intact in the writing process. “I just used my own imagination to tell the rest.”
Edmund began his career as an actor, spending years auditioning professionally in his hometown of Houston. But “there weren’t a lot of roles for skinny Black guys with glasses,” he recalls.
Just as Edmund had his fill, he met Marie Marcel, who ran a small performance center called the Silver House Theatre, where under Marcel’s encouragement, Edmund tried his hand at writing a play for the very first time. “I fell in love with that moment,” he remembers. Edmund is fairly new to Chicago Dramatists, having been brought in from Houston about a year and a half ago as a resident playwright.
Despite a relatively young career, he has already made quite a place for himself as a 2009-2010 Many Voices Fellow at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis, the co-founder of Unit Collective, and the eventual artistic director of the Silver House Theatre. He was also the recipient of Rolling Out magazine’s “Houston’s 40 under 40” Community Choice Award.
“Chicago Dramatists has been a truly amazing learning experience,” says Edmund. “It’s guided me in so many ways, especially getting to work with artistic director Russ Tutterow. He’s been a constant guide towards me being a better artist and gaining my voice. I’ve been very fortunate in that aspect.” Since Southbridge represents the emerging playwright’s Chicago debut, Edmund admits he’s a tad nervous to bear his soul to a new audience.
“I think the fact that I’ve only been in Chicago for little under a year and a half has caused me to have a slight new-kid-on-the-block mentality for this project,” shares Edmund.
“It’s scary having your first real introduction to the theater community as a world premiere. But ultimately, the only thing that truly matters is whether or not the aspirations of what I’m trying to communicate shine through and leave a meaningful impact on the audience.” Southbridge is also Edmund’s first attempt at historical drama, and he hopes to keep the story fresh and current. “I wanted to speak to a modern audience, so there’s some mystery to it, there’s passion, there’s heat, there’s betrayal – there’s something that everyone in the audience can relate to,” he explains. “At the same time I’m looking back to America in 1881, I’m trying to have my finger on the pulse of what it means to live in the world now.”
Following a structure inspired by Tennessee Williams, Southbridge is the second in what will be a nine-play series. In each, a minor character from the previous play becomes a major character in the next.
All the plays will share themes of spirituality, survival, and mystery, and “all of the themes are just looking deeper into the truth of being human,” says Edmund, who describes his writing as “Southern-fried mysticism.”
Southbridge’s sensitive subject matter undermines snap judgments in favor of understanding, in turn delving into our layered nature.
“This play isn’t truly about racism – moreso, it’s about the healing and the destructive power of love,” describes Edmund. “The piece also explores our ability to see into other souls, while not being able to see inside of ourselves.”
It is just such introspection that Edmund identifies as a key purpose of theatre. “I don’t feel we’ve truly reached that point of enlightenment and equality we say we have (in race relations). In order to truly heal, we have to address those things, those ghosts, those scars that are upon us as a nation,” he observes.
“Words have the ability to hurt or heal. It is through theatre, words, and language, and sharing that intimate moment in the darkness surrounded by a bunch of other people in the audience, that the healing process truly begins.”