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Congo Square conjures slavery’s ghosts in ‘A Small Oak Tree’

Tiffany Addison plays Mary Turner and Ronald L. Conner plays her husband, Hayes, in the Congo Square Theatre production of Lekethia Dalcoe's "A Small Oak Tree Runs Red." (Photo: Marcus Davis)

In his program notes for “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red,” now receiving its world premiere by Congo Square Theatre, director Harry Lennix (the actor best known these days as Harold Cooper, the FBI counterterrorism official on NBC’s “The Blacklist”) explains that Lekethia Dalcoe’s play is an allegory. It is a work full of symbolism and infused with a somewhat hidden meaning that, as he puts it, “in the almost seismic potential of our collective disquiet in this new millennium [fosters] a noticeable and compulsive need to return to the past.”

That past, of course, is slavery, and its enduring legacy.

To be sure, any hidden meaning in Dalcoe’s play could not be more hidden in plain sight. Congo Square’s production opened just one week after the long Memorial Day weekend tallied these grim statistics from Chicago: 64 people shot, six of them dead. A four-page spread in Sunday’s New York Times described the city as a place “where gunfire is a terrifying norm,” and “violence has engulfed families and neighborhoods.” No news to those of us who live here.

“A Small Oak Tree Runs Red” also arrives on the heels of the Jackalope Theatre production of Ike Holter’s “Prowess,” which deals with the same issues in a stylized, yet more directly contemporary way. And both plays, despite their different time periods, pose similar fundamental questions: Is violent action (or “revenge”) inevitable and necessary, or is the determination to survive (and possibly thrive over time) the only answer? Does hate invariably turn people into monsters who ultimately turn on themselves, as well as their oppressors?

Hayes Turner (Ronald L. Conor), examines the scars on the back of his friend, Sidney Johnson (Gregory Fenner), in "A Small Oak Tree Runs Red." (Photo: Courtesy of Congo Square Theatre)

Hayes Turner (Ronald L. Conner) examines the scars on the back of his friend, Sidney Johnson (Gregory Fenner), in “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.” (Photo: Courtesy of Congo Square Theatre)

When: Through July 3
Where: Congo Square Theatre at
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Tickets: $20 – $37
Info: (773) 935 – 6875;
Run time: 2 hours and
15 minutes with one intermission

Dalcoe has nothing particularly new to say about any of this, but it is the mythic, poetic, hallucinatory method she employs to tell her story that makes the difference, and Lennix and his cast give themselves over to it with total commitment. No surprise that we hear a riff from “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song about lynching that was written in 1939 by Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday, nor that the centerpiece of Andrei Onegin’s chilling fairy tale-like set (stunningly lit by Richard Norwood) is an oak tree that signifies every lynching that took place in this country from the 19th century on into the 1960s.

Set in rural Georgia in 1918, Dalcoe’s play is based on the true story of Mary Turner (Tiffany Addison, in an altogether magnificent performance); her husband, Hayes Turner (a deftly controlled Ronald L. Conner), and their friend, Sidney Johnson (Gregory Fenner, full of rage as the firebrand hellbent on taking action).

Like the Turners, Johnson is a young worker on the plantation of the notoriously cruel white planter Hampton Smith, and after he is brutally beaten by Smith for refusing to work while he was sick, he decides he has had more than enough and is going to reclaim his manhood. He shoots and kills Smith, even though the Johnsons pleaded with him to refrain from such retaliation because it would only lead to catastrophe. (Hayes Turner has already endured punishing treatment on a chain gang for standing up to Smith after he beat Mary, and he does not want a repeat sentence, or worse.)

After the murder of Smith, both Sidney and Hayes are lynched. But the mob saves its most horrific punishment for Mary Turner, Hayes’ 19-year-old wife who is eight months pregnant. Mary had done the almost unthinkable: She has publicly denounced the unlawful killing of her husband. And as a consequence of this “rebellion” she is lynched and set on fire, and is still alive as her unborn baby is ripped from her body and also murdered.

In an undefined later period, the play’s three characters find themselves in some painful, otherworldly “holding place” where they must reckon with their pasts and with a higher power, in ways that resemble an exorcism. But it is an imperfect exorcism at best, with the ghosts of the past forever rising up to torment them.

Throughout the play it is Mary who is the voice of forbearance, reminding her husband that the only way he can truly defend and protect her and their child is to stay alive. Yet she also shows great compassion to Johnson when he seeks refuge after he kills Smith. And whether singing or praying (and Brandon Reed’s sound design draws on all the proper anthems), Addison brings a luminous beauty and heat to her portrayal.

Dalcoe clearly believes, like the philosopher George Santayana, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But that does not fully address the multifaceted issues confronting us at this moment. Those problems, without question, are well beyond the powers of theater to solve.

Tiffany Addition and Ronald L. Connor (with Gregory Fenner, far left), in Lekethia Dalcoe's newplay, "A Small Oak Tree Runs Red." (Photo: Courtesy of Congo Square Theatre)

Tiffany Addison and Ronald L. Conner (with Gregory Fenner, far left), in Lekethia Dalcoe’s new play, “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.” (Photo: Courtesy of Congo Square Theatre)