Audience members will never see Mary but they will know she was once there.
Because all will have been said and done once the circus performers arrive at the scene, and their job will be to reconstruct the story of Mary, who was convicted of murder in a court of law and sentenced to die by hanging.
But how, exactly, does a town carry out the process of hanging an elephant? Yes, Mary was an elephant, and her story is true.
And her execution was agonizing.
Joanna Battles doesn’t portray George Brant’s Elephant’s Graveyard as anything but what it is — a tough story.
She’s the director of the LSU Department of Theatre’s fall Mainstage play, which opens Friday, Nov. 9, in the Reilly Theatre. Opening night will be preceded by a pay-what-you-can performance on Wednesday and a sneak preview on Thursday.
And it’s in the Reilly where audiences will be transported to 1916 Erwin, Tenn., where Sparks World Famous Shows set up its big top, and where the star attraction, an enormous Indian elephant named Mary killed her abusive rider.
The town and the circus members immediately clash over how to settle the matter, and ultimately on what is just and what is justice. Elephant’s Graveyard ultimately forces audiences to reexamine America’s ongoing preoccupation with spectacle, violence and revenge.
Brant wrote the play in 2008. He began exploring the piece through the original headlines surrounding the horrific lynching, but his focus quickly shifted to photographs surrounding the story, and the very imagery of the incident.
“There was something disturbing about the picture on a primal level, beyond the obvious cruelty,” Brant said in a statement about the play. “The picture is blurry, cloudy, muddy, misremembered even at its moment of documentation.”
Battles hopes to represent this visual aspect of the play, while stressing its relevance to modern audiences.
“I hope that this production will not only bear witness to history, but allow the audience to learn from the mistakes of those who have come before,” she said. “My hope is that this play will instigate the audience to act in the face of oppression and injustice, rather than allow them to be caught up in the seduction of group mentality and general apathy.”
Standing center ring as narrator and ringleader is Will Thomas who plays, well, the Ringleader.
Thomas is a senior from Mandeville majoring in theater. He dressed in costume on this particular rehearsal day, complete with red tail coat and top hat.
Still, there’s something a bit off-center about his costume, as well as those of the actors that join him in the ring. They look a bit raggedy, as if they’re traveling street performers. And in some ways, they are.
“There were a lot of traveling circuses in the early 20th century,” Battles said. “They would run out of money and just leave their circus tents and sets in the towns where they were performing. Farmers would take these sets and store them in their barns. Years later, a lot of old circus sets were turning up in barns.”
And the raggedy circus bunch in this story happens to walk upon an empty circus set in Erwin, Tenn.
“We’re approaching it as a group of actors who find this set and start piecing the story together,” Battle said.
“It’s stylish, but it flows,” Thomas said.
Thomas had never heard Mary’s story before he auditioned for this part. He found the story compelling, and though he had freedom to develop the Ringmaster character, he didn’t want to stray far from the script.
“He’s running his father’s business,” Thomas said. “He wants to take the business and make it better, and he wants to make this dream come true.
Which is, after all, the American way. But dreams sometimes become nightmares, and when Mary the elephant kills her rider, the Ringmaster allows the townspeople to take control.
“He feels that the only way that his dream can come true at this point is by letting the townspeople do their will,” Thomas said. “But he loses his big attraction and therefore loses his money. The circus was his big investment, and he loses his money and his soul.”
Ah, there’s the key word — soul. Or maybe humanity is a better word, because the question here is how far do people have to go to lose their humanity?
For describing the elephant’s execution is painful and definitely not in any way humane.
“But I don’t want the audience to get the wrong idea about this play,” Battles said. “It has a lot of light moments.”
Elephant’s Graveyard will be performed in the round with a circus ring in the center. Flags also will be draped from the Reilly’s ceiling to create a circus feel.
The play also will feature live music throughout the performance. Brant, in his statement, said his intention behind the addition of music was to, “further break up the monologues and move the play toward becoming a musical score.”
The elephant’s story isn’t pretty, but it’s told in a compelling way.
One that surely will be remembered in the Reilly Theatre.
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