Lookingglass Theatre

at Edge of the Lookingglass

Twenty-five years ago on a sleepy summer Sunday, three civil rights workers–James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner–disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi. For nearly two months, newspapers around the country carried daily reports on the search. When their bodies were found, the murders galvanized public opinion against racists’ brutal ways of maintaining segregation.

Twenty-four years later, Alan Parker made a profoundly distorted movie about the events in Mississippi–Mississippi Burning–that made the civil rights movement look FBI-inspired and -endorsed. It all but forgot to mention that black people were doing something themselves to improve their lot in the south. Now, playwright Andrew White has come along to set the record straight with Of One Blood, a fairly accurate, often dramatic, sometimes self-indulgent retelling of the events leading up to the murders.

The play begins on a lonely road in Mississippi. Chaney (Adrian Byrd), Goodman (Thomas J. Cox), and Schwerner (David Schwimmer) drive along that fateful highway indulging in the most idle of idle chatter, reminiscent of nothing so much as the long, boring conversations between the two cops on Adam 12 as they drove around their beat. Schwerner talks about how he’s decided to grow a beard since the locals all hate him anyway, and Goodman seems genuinely surprised that beards are associated with beatniks and intellectuals.

Although this idle chatter sets the tone in the first scene, it becomes annoying in the second and in countless later scenes, which interrupt the genuinely dramatic moments in the play. One conversation in particular (over coffee and pie in Mrs. Chaney’s kitchen) was so trivial I could hardly keep my mind from wandering.

As the first scene ends, the three have been stopped by that archetypal redneck policeman, deputy sheriff Price (Robert Helling), who was later arrested but never formally charged in connection with the murders. He greets them with the universal southern threat: “Well, good afternoon, boys.” And we all know what that means.

We don’t get to see the killings just yet. In the next scene, we meet up with the three civil rights workers in heaven–or limbo or purgatory or whatever. Twenty-five years after the fact, the three still hang out together to mull over their murders and recount the stories of their lives. But they seem less like murdered souls than like a trio of talk-show hosts or news anchormen trying to liven things up with some chitchat before getting on with the show.

After a little more dawdling they decide, with mock spontaneity, to “give them”–meaning us–“some character development” before giving us some plot line. When Schwerner self-consciously calls his wife Rita (Eva Barr) onstage, she strides in from the wings like the next guest on the Chaney and Goodman and Schwerner Show. Rita’s entrance proves to be a turning point, however, for her story–mundane details and all–grounds the play in reality and brings out the drama inherent in the civil rights movement but totally lacking in the play’s first two scenes. Schwerner even steps down from on high and joins his wife as a real live character–not just an anchorman–in her flashback.

The scenes that follow are the best in the show–in a sense, they are the show. After seeing Rita and her husband working with black families in Mississippi, we come to understand just how devoted they are to the cause. We are also made to see, in a series of split scenes, the vast gulf between the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic white supremacy of the Ku Klux Klan and the egalitarianism of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE): Klan speeches are contrasted with CORE’s civil rights folk songs.

Chaney and Goodman, in turn, tell how and why they became involved in the movement. We get a real sense of what it must have been like to be a black man (Chaney) defying the powers that be in Mississippi, or to be an idealistic but innocent suburban college boy (Goodman) confronted for the first time with gross injustice.

Writer/director Andrew White has clearly done his research; and by and large the most powerful material in the show is based, as White puts it, on “non-fictive texts.” The breadth of White’s research is never more apparent than in his fairly evenhanded treatment of the white Mississippians’ point of view. “How would you like it if we came up there and said you’re doing it all wrong, everything’s going to change?” one anguished southerner asks a TV reporter after the three workers have disappeared. “Like all we do is kill niggers around here. We’re nice people here.”

Still, it’s hard not to wish White had trimmed his story a little, put in an intermission, or both. Even the most dramatic material drags after an hour and a half. Certainly the show’s bathetic epilogue, in which Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner hang around limbo whining and arguing among themselves about whether their deaths meant anything, could be torn from the script and never missed.