“Nobody Knew Where They Was” Finds its Way

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The weekend started off at the Harlem School of the
Arts with “Nobody 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.

Knew Where They
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’t 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’s
(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’s 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 chains 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?

“Nobody 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

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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