Credit: Liz Lauren

The photograph is famous. Taken on the night of August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana, it shows two young black men hanging by their necks from ropes looped around tree limbs. Their clothes are ripped and streaked with blood. One of them has a Ku Klux Klan robe wrapped around his lower torso. It was reported that members of the lynch mob shredded his pants to make souvenirs, and somebody substituted the robe . . . for decency’s sake.

The dead men are Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. They were accused of robbing a white factory worker named Claude Deeter, shooting him to death, and raping his girlfriend, Mary Ball. Vigilantes broke into the jail where Shipp and Smith were being held and mutilated them before putting the nooses around their necks.

A third suspect, 16-year-old James Cameron, was about to get the same treatment when, as he later recalled, a heavenly voice said, “Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with any raping or killing.” And the mob spared him.

Cameron spent about four years in jail as an accessory, divine intervention notwithstanding. But he made good on his debt to God after his release by becoming a civil rights activist—starting NAACP chapters throughout Indiana, founding the now-defunct America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, and telling his story everywhere he could until his death in 2006.

Now at Victory Gardens Theater, Charles Smith’s messy, intriguing The Gospel According to James is described as a “fictional account inspired” by the Marion lynching and Cameron’s strange destiny. It’s more like a deconstruction, though, subverting the narrative Cameron validated through repetition by offering another from an equally authoritative source. The point isn’t so much to impeach Cameron’s account—though that inevitably happens—as to look at how, by whom, and at what cost a story gets turned into history. Or even into gospel.

The play begins in the early 1980s, when Cameron is well into his 60s and the atrocity he survived is 50 years in the past. He’s returned to Marion for the funeral of Hoot Ball, father of alleged rape victim Mary Ball, not to pay his respects, but to see Mary. He wants her to tell her story to a documentary filmmaker who’s interested in the lynching—but only if that story gibes with his own.

It doesn’t, of course. Gospel consists mostly of flashbacks that contrast Cameron’s version of what happened with Mary’s.

His tale is as simple as it is convenient. Just like the historical Cameron, Smith’s James maintains that he was riding with Abram and Thomas in Thomas’s old Ford when his two friends decided to pick up some cash by robbing couples at the local lovers’ lane. James was reluctant but went along. He couldn’t follow through, though, when he realized that the victim was to be Deeter, who’d treated him decently in the past. James claims he ran off, and that was the end of his involvement in the crime.

Mary Ball’s rendition is a good deal juicier. In it, she’s a kind of Mary Magdalene figure: a slut with intimations of something better. She goes around with Deeter, but he’s an evil lout, as is his sometime partner in crime, Thomas. Abram, however, is special: gentle, protective, anxious to find a decent life well away from Marion. As far as Mary’s concerned, he’s the prime intimation of something better. When the violence comes, it’s about a lot more than money.

And James? He hardly figures—a thug in training, who can’t seem to get the hang of the work (and, in Anthony Peeples’s characterization, seems too simpleminded to develop into the man that Cameron became).

Smith’s script has some major problems, starting with the queasy ethical one of whether it’s right to impute ugly motives and actions to people who not only never asked for their notoriety but attained it through martyrdom. Then there are simple but important narrative questions, like, how and why did James arrive at a story so much at variance with the one Mary tells? Why is he so dead set on ratifying that story as the truth when it doesn’t seem to serve his public purposes any better than Mary’s does? How come he and Mary never acknowledge the reality of their relationship even to each other? And why is the timeline in Mary’s version so screwy?

Still, for all that, the play has its power. Smith is ultimately concerned with James Cameron as a man saddled with discipleship. With the responsibility of keeping faith. A rabbi, David Polish, once wrote a poem called “The Resurrection,” about a sort of supernatural peddler who goes through the world selling soap and candles made of the dead from Nazi death camps. The people who buy his goods find themselves cursed with the memory of those dead. As a survivor of the Marion lynching, Cameron qualifies as another incarnation of the peddler. It’s a job nobody in his right mind would want, and the compensation he gets for his trouble is the right to tell what happened his way.