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Nobody Knew Where They Was

The weekend started off at the Harlem School of the Arts with ?obody Knew Where They Was,?a H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players production, directed by Arthur French, written by and co-starring Roger Parris. This thought provoking play ran from February 25 through Sunday, March 20th.    Via his drama, Parris puts before the public a masterpiece of intrigue and psychology that richly deserves to be resurrected somewhere on a near-Broadway stage.
 
Nobody Knew Where They Was is a period piece that takes place somewhere in Georgia in 1949.  A time in America not so different from now, except back then, racism was overt.  Wherein modern day, it is covert. To get at the heart of this play, one must follow 5 escaping prisoners to a back woods jute joint owned by the reclusive Black Ruth.  Ruth has insulated herself against the harshness of southern white bigotry in a remote forest area where few whites dare venture.  Black Ruth likes it that way.  She feels safe from the climate of white hatred that could steal away a black life for the slightest offense or even lack of one.  To walk around being black was offense enough as some of the white folks saw it and deemed it.   In the back woods, Black Ruth had created a world of escapism for those black folks who needed a reprieve from the rigors of racism.  She served her black clientele a bit of white lightning, music, fun, comfort and all the love she could muster.
 
As the story unfolds, the audience learns how each of the prisoners unfairly came to work the chain gang. While Lady Justice is content to turn a blind eye, we as the spectator cannot help but emotionally internalize the injustices non-whites have experienced throughout their sojourn in America.  Some say Blacks complain too much.  Others say they haven? complained nearly enough.  Perhaps the problem has been those of color have remained too divided and have forgotten what was accomplished via a united front.
 
Through this production, we see what is possible when team work is applied.  We are also shown what can happen when fear, mistrust and working against the good of the whole rears its ugly head.
 
Sonny Smalls played by Ralph McCain, is a northern gent, who drives down south in a brand new car not understanding the repercussions of driving into a small southern town, inhabited by ignorant minds obsessed with a false sense of privilege and entitlement that demonstrates how truly inferior they are, when the local yokels see fit to rob McCain of his car and his freedom.  West Indian Teddy? (Roger Parris) attempts to rescue his sister and take her back home, leaves him penalized to a life sentence on the chain gang.  One Arm Jimmy was performed by Ward Nixon throughout the play but for two performances, substitute actor Marshall Mitchell equally mastered the role.  It was Marshall Mitchell who performed as One Arm Jimmy the night I saw the play.  Embittered and betrayed in childhood by someone who should have been his lifeline, Jimmy has learned to expect the worst from others and thus mistrusts everyone around him.  Electric Sam (AC Davison) can fix most anything.  He had the misfortune to be the scapegoat of a privileged white boy who blamed Sam for his crime in an atmosphere where the black man is always assumed guilty.  And, then there is Cocoa (Albert Eggleston), a home spun Southern boy well versed in the ways of white man? bigotry.  He has learned to survive by any means necessary.  However, even his wily ways could not save him from the chain gang when the white wife of his boss decides to make Cocoa the object of her flirtation. 
 
These men simply disappeared into the confinement of the Georgia penal system, swallowed up with no way to contact family.  They found themselves unwilling pons in a system of legalized slavery designed to keep them ensnared; iron chain on their bodies, mental chains on their minds imposing a searing pain so deep it suffices to burn away any compassion from hearts stung by years of disappointment.
 
What direction should these men run as they seek to be free of the chains that tethered their body, yet remain unaware of the chains that tether their mind?  Driven by fear they band together but are made impotent by their mistrust of one another.  Do they remain true to the bonds of trust they have built which would assure their escape or do they break them and turn on one another guaranteeing their own destruction?
Black Ruth (Kimberlee Monroe) nurtures them for a time, offering up hope, comfort and love, bringing out their humanity and showing them despite their differences if they work together they have the opportunity to be free.  Does she succeed or does she end up doing the unthinkable?
 
?obody Knew Where They Was?gives us as a chance to reflect on whether as a race we know where we are heading.  Have we mapped out a direction as a people or will we continue to wander in the dense forest, trapped in the darkness of our mistrust, stagnated and unable to move forward, in the long run betraying ourselves. 
 
June Terry does a fine job with costuming.  The cast was excellent and drew the viewer into the drama.  The audience feels both pathos and a camaraderie with the characters. You cannot separate yourself from their pain, their joy and their hope because ultimately you can relate.
 
I hope this play will surface again.  When it does, go see it.
As in life, the ending is left open.  The choices are yours to make.  Therefore, so is the final outcome.
 
 
 
 
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