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When Karen Hesse wrote her novel, Witness, she based it on our own country’s history: the tumultuous century after the Civil War that brought Blacks and Immigrants to a place where they were judged by a society run, until that time, solely by the White Male. Many of those white males, seeing that the numbers of these “outsiders” were growing to a point where they could not be ignored, panicked; if they could not be controlled, then more drastic steps would have to be taken.
Thus, in the very early years of the 20th century, the influence of the Ku Klux Klan began to make itself felt in every corner of the country. Whereas many believe that the Klan is a Southern-based entity, the efforts of the KKK were felt all over the land — not just in the South; but even, as Hesse tells us, in the small New England town of Revelation Falls, Vermont. The number of people living in Revelation Falls was only around 1,600; but it was 1924, and the railroads were running, and the telephone poles ran lines through the town, and all seemed right with the world — at least, for the most part.
The Justice Theater Project staged John Urquhart’s dramatization of Karen Hesse’s novel this past weekend. This stage adaptation of Witness, adapted for grades 4 thru 7, brings the town of Revelation Falls to life with only a few separate, if detailed, stage pieces. Centrally located is the town’s General Store, run by Harvey and Viola Pettibone (Michael Keough and Carnessa Ottelin). Directly across from the store is the Train Station. Scattered about the remaining areas of the stage are the homes of Sara Chickering (Jennifer Scott McNair), a farmer; Mr. Field (John Honeycutt), a retired carpenter who now paints; the offices of the town newspaper, run by editor Reynard Alexander (Greg Paul); and a center area which represents, among other things, the church, run by preacher Johnny Reeves (Jim Moscater); the backyard of a young black girl in town, Leanora Sutter (Lucinda Harris), and her father; and a glade near the town where young lovers might tryst.
Leanora is the butt of many a joke and many a racial slur, being the only young person of color in Revelation Falls; but it is the arrival of a family of immigrant Jews in the town that really seems to stir everybody up. After coming in and staying for the summer as boarders at Miz Chickering’s farmhouse, the widowed Ira Hirsch (Al Singer) and his young daughter, Esther (Claire Wilson), decide — actually, it was Esther who decided — to move to Revelation Falls, where Ira opens a shoe store. There are those in town who think it is a travesty, none more than storekeeper Harvey, who has already, more than once, insisted to his wife Viola that the arrival of the Klan in Revelation Falls is worthy of note, and that they should join.
The rest of the cast watch everything that goes on in town or out; each character watches the action no matter where it takes place onstage. These are just folks, found in any town: Willie (Kevin Zeph), the son of the Pettibones; a school-chum of his and a “bad seed,” Merlin (Jim Zervas); their schoolteacher, Olive Harvey (Debra Zumbach Grannan); Mary Thibault, Merlin’s girlfriend (Rebecca Nerz); and Doris Hook (Kristen Killmer), also of high school age, who works in the Pettibones’ store.
From the beginning, Constable “Percy” Johnson is investigating a shooting. Someone used a rifle to shoot through the keyhole of Sara Chickering’s front door and was lucky enough to hit someone; since time runs rather less than linearly in this show, we do not learn who was hit right away. And even though we see that whoever shot that rifle was a Klansman, the only Klan we see are townsfolk who have joined; we never see another soul. What this play gives us, then, is a sort of horror dropped into a place alien to it, a sort of Native Son Meets Our Town. The result is shockingly direct and amazingly subtle. The fact that schoolmarm Olive Harvey joins the Klan auxiliary is in itself shocking to us, especially since she seems such a gentle soul.
We are faced, therefore, with what the town has become: split, with those who believe the Klan on one side and those who believe their own consciences on the other. In time — and it seems a very long time — the Klan is forced out, but not before there is assault, death, and even attempted murder. The shooting is never solved, at least as far as Revelation Falls is concerned — only we learn the truth in a split-second that might get lost to some viewers. But it is the one thing in this show that doesn’t surprise us. Hate, bigotry, and brutality, in a place that Our Town has come to represent, does shock and surprise us; it is a place that we would never believe such a thing could happen. And that, of course, is the whole point.
The Justice Theater Project presents Witness Friday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 26, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 27, at 2 p.m. in the Cardinal Gibbons High School Performing Arts Theater, 1401 Edwards Mill Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students, seniors, and military personnel). 919/845-7386. Note: On Feb. 27th, theologian Stanley Hauerwas will speak on how faith-filled people should respond to hatred and violence at the JTP’s February Community Forum, starting at 7 p.m., at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi (http://www.sfaraleigh.org/SFA/Home/), 11401 Leesville Rd., Raleigh, NC. The Justice Theater Project: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/ns/index.php [inactive 4/05].
The Justice Theater Project will present the North Carolina premiere of Witness, John Urquhart’s stage adaptation of the Newberry Award-winning 2001 novel by Karen Hesse, written for grades 4-7, Feb. 18-27 in the Cardinal Gibbons High School Performing Arts Theater in Raleigh, NC. JTP artistic director Deb Royals-Mizerk will direct a cast that includes Debra Grannan, Lucinda Harris, John Honeycutt, Michael Keough, Kristin Killmer, Jennifer Scott McNair, Jim Moscater, Rebecca Nerz, Carnessa Ottelin, Greg Paul, Al Singer, Claire Wilson, Kevin Zeph, and Jim Zervas.
Besides director Deb Royals-Mizerk, the show’s creative team includes scenic and lighting designer Shannon Clark, Costume designer Jamie Cuthrell, and sound designer Al Wodarski.
The Justice Theater Project writes [that t]he stage script for "Witness was developed through New Visions/New Voices at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC in May 2004 and premiered at the Lexington Children’s Theatre in Lexington, KY in September of 2004.
"Confronted with the challenges involved in truly understanding the issues of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic justice, Witness is both a mirror and a lamp — reflecting and illuminating the reality of racism and injustice as they live still in our world today.
"Director Deb Royals-Mizerk takes viewers into the emotional world of a community on the brink of disaster told through the haunting and impassioned voices of its inhabitants as they reach inside our hearts and minds forcing us to bear witness to people and their capacity for love and hate.
"Witness tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan’s attempt to recruit members in a small Vermont town in 1924. A young black girl, Leanora Sutter, feels isolated by racial prejudice and her mother’s recent death. Esther Hirsh, a younger Jewish girl, whose innocence and natural optimism provide a sharp contrast to the other characters, befriends her. Merlin, a teenager, and Johnny Reeves, a minister in the town, voice the Klan’s hate-filled message of white supremacy as both become Klan members. Other characters, the town constable and newspaper editor, try to walk a careful line of neutrality until they realize the importance of taking a stand. Storekeepers Viola and Harvey Pettibone represent two opposing reactions to the Klan’s methods as they grapple with the issue in their home. Sara Chickering, who opens her home to the Hirsh family, reflects a new freedom for women who had just gained the right to vote as she struggles with her own biases and her growing love for the child Esther.
"These characters and other members of the town are among the unforgettable cast inhabiting ‘Revelation Falls, Vermont, population 1,627’; a town that turns against its own when the Klan moves in. Over the course of many months, residents are affected in many ways by pressures that build in the community leading up to a climactic moment of violence. In the voices of residents of the town, we experience this series of events from different points of view. As the characters speak and convey the juxtaposition of acts of hate and love, violence and peace, terror and kindness, they illuminate the full range of human strengths and weaknesses in one small town.
"Witness is a historical play adapted from Newberry Award winner Karen Hesse’s book, Witness. Using real events, it is a stunning piece of little-known American history that forces the audience to juxtapose time against time; to examine how things have changed since 1924; to recognize and confront the reality of hatred and hostility; and to calculate its cost to the human condition.
"Following all performances, the cast and production crew will engage the audience in a unique ‘Talk-Back’ forum inviting participation and discussion about the issues raised in the play.
"In conjunction with its performances of Witness at Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Theater, The Justice Theater Project is pleased to welcome esteemed theologian Stanley Hauerwas to speak at its February Community Forum on Sunday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. at the Catholic Community of St Francis of Assisi.
"The forum will include staged readings from the novel Witness by Newberry Award winner Karen Hesse and ‘Hauerwasian’ insights around key themes from the play and novel including how people of faith should respond to acts of hatred, violence, and hostility increasingly present in the modern world.”
The Justice Theater Project presents Witness Friday, Feb. 18 and 25, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 19 and 26, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 20 and 27, at 2 p.m. in the Cardinal Gibbons High School Performing Arts Theater, 1401 Edwards Mill Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students, seniors, and military personnel). 919/845-7386. Note: On Feb. 27th, theologian Stanley Hauerwas will speak on how faith-filled people should respond to hatred and violence at the JTP’s February Community Forum, starting at 7 p.m., at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi (http://www.sfaraleigh.org/SFA/Home/), 11401 Leesville Rd., Raleigh, NC. The Justice Theater Project: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/ns/index.php [inactive 4/05].