BWW Review: TRADE WITH KLAN at Southwest Theatre Productions At Santa Cruz Theatre
Ah the good old days! Back when the sky was clear, the water was clean and the red, white and blue of the 48 star spangled banner still waved true. Only not so much for people of color and immigrants who came to the 'land of opportunity'. Prejudice and racism is as American as apple pie as Southwest Theatre Productions's world premiere of TRADE WITH KLAN by Donald E. Baker so clearly illustrates.
Set in small town Indiana in the 1920's, TRADE WITH KLAN portrays the Klu Klux Klan's stranglehold on daily life in middle America. After WWI, the US moved towards isolationism and away from the free immigration policies of previous decades. With still more refugees coming from Europe, the Klan continued to enforce its white supremacy policy with a twist that would surprise people today. Most of us are aware of the deep anti Semitic feelings of the KKK, and their violent campaign against people of color, but did you know that white people of the Catholic faith were also targeted? Being born in the 1960's, I remember being told by friends not to wear my crucifix or my St Christopher's medal on the outside of my clothing. It puzzled me as a kid, I mean, wasn't it the same God? What I didn't know at the time was that techniques of 'othering' enforced by the local Klan made me someone my friends parents objected to. What seems unbelievable today was commonplace and socially acceptable in mostly white communities.
The story begins as a new minister Daniel (Emi Larraud) returns to his hometown to take over his late grandfather's pulpit. He finds the town changed from the one he left and is disturbed by everyone's open Klan membership, including his brother Elroy (Kyle Turetzky). Signs with the slogan "Trade With Klan" have appeared in shop windows all over town and Daniel has been told to shun his Catholic friend, Nora (Chiara Russi McCarty). His refusal to do so brings down the pressure of the KKK on his head. Rounding out the townsfolk are Millie (Meredith O'Brien) the owner of the local cafe, who is one of the last holdouts. She tries to help Nora by giving her a job but fellow waitress, Francie (Bonnie Lambert) treats the Catholic girl with mistrust. The town busybody Helen (Suzanne Orzech) spreads her social network of the Klan's women's auxiliary even though her conscience gives her the occasional qualm. Perhaps the most surprising member of the community to push hate is Rev. Gideon Heyward (Tom Swift). He preaches Klan from the pulpit and threatens those who don't follow along. The whole town turns on the 'others' in their midst and tragedy strikes. The most important takeaway from TRADE WITH KLAN, is that even in the most seemingly innocent places, hate and intolerance can grow and fester. While the South seethed with open violence, lynchings and murder, the Midwest was growing the same seeds in silence and shadows.
Southwest Theatre Productions has a tradition of tackling the hardest subjects with shows like CAGES and SWEAT. Kat Sparks and Jan Phillips often bring new plays to Austin, TRADE WITH KLAN is no different. Submitted to SWTP's Rising Artists play competition, this world premiere brings a new voice to the stage. Donald E. Baker's script is startling as well as poignant and moving. His dialogue is clear and has a wonderful touch of middle American humor sprinkled among the characters. What this play does best is it shows us the parallels between 1920 and today. Lines that make the audience groan with knowledge of what lies ahead for our country are often wry and connect with viewers immediately. It made me remember instances from my Catholic childhood that were long forgotten, one of which I've already mentioned. TRADE WITH KLAN is worthy of large audiences and should be seen all over this country. Elisa Stancil's set design embodies the quaint setting without distracting from the action of the play. Ryan Salinas' lighting design is clear and helps to section the stage into other locations in the show. Veronica Dobell Prior's costumes are wonderful, giving us not only a glimpse into the characters' status but are near period perfect, something I enjoy beyond measure. Kat Sparks' direction uses the entirety of the Santa Cruz stage, as well as keeping the pace moving throughout the show. As the young reverend, Emi Larraud is earnest and honest, with the conflict he feels playing across his face. Kyle Turetzky as the brother who stayed home, knows what he's doing is wrong but can't bring himself to fight the mob. He's one of those 'go along to get along' guys and we can only guess how much he will regret his choices as the years pass. As the old Rev. Heyward, Tom Swift is gracious and menacing in turns, he plays the character with an ease born of experience from his long acting career. Perhaps my favorite character is Suzanne Orzech as Helen, the town gossip. She is a delightful bundle of sweet wrongheadedness; it's genuinely hard to dislike her until she commits herself to the darkest of deeds with the mildest of backward glances. These are characters who, on the surface, are not bad people, but their obvious plunge into darkness is truly tragic.
TRADE WITH KLAN with its focus on a hidden part of American history that so clearly parallels our current climate is well worth your time and attention.
TRADE WITH KLAN
by Donald E. Baker
Directed by Kat Sparks
Southwest Theatre Productions at Santa Cruz Theatre, 1805 E 7th Street, Austin
January 17 - February 2
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $25 - $23, groups of 6 or more $20 swtproductions.com