Theater archives

Trial by Era


Clarence Darrow defended the big ones— Eugene Debs, Leopold and Loeb, and biology teacher John T. Scopes in the “monkey” trial. In Clarence Darrow Tonight, you can hear his eloquent perorations from these historical cases. But a lesser-known 1952 trial of a black woman accused of murdering a white doctor has, in playwright Thulani Davis’s deft hands, yielded up a complex and provocative drama, Everybody’s Ruby.

Davis tells her story in overlapping layers that richly detail the small-town Florida atmosphere, customs, and racial tensions of the time. Ruby McCollum’s murder of Doc Adams is at the center; trial coverage by the writer Zora Neale Hurston revolves around it.

The literal facts are not in question. Ruby, a stylish black housewife, shoots the politically ambitious, young white doctor at point-blank range. The whys are what the play seeks to unravel. We soon learn that Ruby and the doctor were longtime lovers. Ruby, who is married to Sam, a successful numbers operator, was first raped by the doctor during a medical exam. But their repeated sexual encounters develop into an obsessive mutual passion— and produce a child. Threads of lust, revenge, and greed connect the blacks and the whites who mutually profit from Sam’s gambling operation. The trial is a cartoon of justice and an attempt to suppress the unpalatable truths that everybody knows.

Hurston arrives to cover the story for The Pittsburgh Gazette. A much-published author, she is down on her luck when she shows up in a wartime suit, treasured typewriter in hand. The hostile white citizens ridicule the notion she’s an author; the blacks alternately welcome her or warn her off. Stalled in her reporting, she begs help from a friend, the white reporter William Bradford Huie. The tensions that emerge between white and black, male and female, rich and poor, come in as many shades as the colors of the “black” folks’ skin.

The play is staged as a series of flashbacks or “visions” of Zora’s, which punctuate the more ambling narrative. In the first, Ruby points her pistol, fires, and the doctor falls dead. Backing up, we see Ruby and Doc late one night in an erotic dance of daring and desire. Later, the doctor taunts Sam one time too many, and the abused husband catches him in a stranglehold and presses a knife to his balls. Heart-stopping stuff.

Interpreting Davis’s intuitive and eloquent script, Viola Davis gives a searing performance as Ruby, defiant, intelligent, smoldering with a passion she knows is destructive yet is helpless to escape. She is equally persuasive in her terror at the doctor’s initial rape as in the fatal pull toward him: “When he spoke to me, I could feel his breath on my eyelids. . . . It made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.”

Zora is also a character of subtlety and dimension, played by Phylicia Rashad with earthy warmth, wisdom, and self-deprecating humor. But Davis does not flesh Hurston or her story out enough for us to understand the drama of the writer’s descent into poverty and obscurity. A scene late in the play where convicted murderer and “has-been” writer bond over their dismal fate as black women just misses, although there is a touching tenderness to it.

The play’s dramatic tension ebbs and flows, but Everybody’s Ruby is never lacking in interest. Davis provides a satisfying variety of secondary characters who depict the many nuances of the town’s social structure. There is the gushing black librarian Beau (Bryan Webster), the weasly white deputy sheriff Barkley (Raynor Scheine), the autocratic white Judge (Bernie McInerney), and the saucy black waitress (Crystal Fox), among others. The performances are uniformly good in roles small and large. Beau Gravitte’s Doc Adams simmers with sensual heat and recklessness, and Bill Nunn’s stolid, dignified Sam breaks out in a frightening rage. Tuck Milligan’s rough-edged Huie makes a perfect impervious foil to Rashad’s sensitive Hurston.

From evocative semidarkness, drenching rain, and blistering thunder, to foot-tapping blues music, director Kenny Leon’s production works the atmosphere for all its worth. Though the play’s weather is occasionally tepid, it sizzles whenever Leon stages one of its visceral love-triangle scenes.

Unfortunately, there’s not much dramatic heat in Clarence Darrow Tonight, although Laurence Luckinbill does work up a sweat as the old crusader retailing his war stories for a fee. Ambling down the aisle, hands in pockets, flirting with the old ladies in the audience, Luckinbill, who also wrote and staged this one-man show, tells Darrow’s story, summarizes the great cases, and delivers what sound like the legendary orator’s actual speeches. Hamming it up mightily, he rails against capital punishment and capitalism. There are dramatic pauses, signals to
applaud— a lackluster performance of a pedestrian script. The actor begins with a question: “You here for entertainment or edification?” The audience the night I saw Darrow obviously felt they got a little of both, and that was enough for them. As for me, I was hoping for a play.