Playwright: Ervin Gardner. At: Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-769-4451; www.blackensemble.org; $55-$65. Runs through: March 15
There's nothing like a courtroom drama for spelling out the issues of its day to audiences. This is no less true when the play under scrutiny is a 2015 world premiere proposing to recount the events of a real-life trial transpiring in 1891.
The defendant is Moses Fleetwood Walker, the mixed-race son of an Ohio doctor. We are told that, following his early career as a major league baseball player recruited from Oberlin College, he purchased property, published a newspaper and was granted patents on several inventions. Whether it was the accomplishments evidencing his status as an exemplary citizen, or the lucky circumstance to be arrested in Syracuse, New York, for fatally wounding a white man during a street fight, Walker finds himself receiving the full protection of the law for his plea of self-defense. This is small comfort to his family and supporters, despite his lawyers' assurance that justice will prevail.
For cheating playgoers who conducted pre-curtain research revealing the facts of the case, Ervin Gardner's procedural will invoke the familiar tropes of its genre"Gentlemen, this is a courtroom, not a theater"while voicing remarks, drawn from the court records, of an ugliness shocking to our modern sensibilities. ( "To what tribe do you belong?" the prosecution demands of Walker, seeking to suggest an ancestral propensity for violence. ) Gardner's narrative also differs from its prototypes in that there are no flashbacks rendering us privy to undocumented information, the action moving outside the courtroom only once, when Walker's brother addresses members of the press. The Vox Populi instead is represented by two groups of gallery spectatorsone white, one black, seated in separate quarterswho debate the outcome of the case presented before the all-white all-male jury.
Beneath the suspense generated by Gardner's articulate dialogue as we await the jury foreman's announcement of the verdict is another curiosity observed by long-time Black Ensemble audiencesnamely, the absence of songs, dances, and musicians visible onstage. Oh, Robert Reddrick and his instrumentalists are concealed offstage, where they supply string-band incidental music punctuating the arguments in progress, but there is no mistaking this exercise in classical American realism ( occasional expository video projections notwithstanding ) for a "musical" of the kind associated with Jackie Taylor's company. Toe-tappers needn't fear abandonment, however. As the BET artistic director noted in her curtain speech, the mission of addressing additional topics to those previously examined signals, not a closing, but an opening of doors into a future auspiciously heralded by this superlative production.