Something extraordinary is happening at a house that Frank Lloyd Wright built. The house is the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas, the only free-standing theatre in the country built by the legendary architect. The extraordinary play is Inherit the Wind, which became an instant classic during its national debut on another small stage in Dallas in January 1955. Three months later it was on Broadway, and a few years after that it became an Oscar-nominated film starring Spencer Tracy. If you didn’t see any of those, you might have seen a production at your local high school.
So why is a play based on the real-life Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925 (religion vs. evolution) still relevant today? Because it’s a metaphor for the Right to Think.
The photograph above tells you all you need to know about the current production in Dallas. No traditional courtroom setting, no period costumes. The one larger-than-life character you see is an African-American actress playing the part of Bible-thumping attorney and 3-time Presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady (based on Williams Jennings Bryant, who faced off against another superstar of the day, Clarence Darrow). That’s right: a woman playing a man. His wife is played by a man. Why the cross-gender casting? Not for any political or social agenda, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The play, stripped of its traditional moorings, makes the audience find its anchor by focusing on the dialog. And the dialog grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you hard (as did the performances). Many in the audience stayed for a Late-Night talk with some of the actors. We were liberals and conservatives; young, old and middle-aged; affluent and not-affluent. The consensus: these change-ups (cast and set) made us listen to the dialog in a fresh way. On its surface the play debates creationism (as told in the Bible) vs. evolution (as explained by scientist Charles Darwin), but, in the words of one of the playwrights, “it’s not about science vs. religion. It’s about the right to think.”
“You see, I haven’t really thought very much. I was always afraid of what I might think–so it seemed safer not to think at all. But now I know. A thought is like a child inside our body. It has to be born. If it dies inside you, part of you dies too!” Rachel, a young school teacher in the play. She’s in love with the teacher on trial for teaching evolution, and she’s also the daughter of a local minister.
One of the first things the play made me think about is the current debate over Climate Change. And what about Fake News? Republicans and Democrats both cry “fake news”, and the fact is it does exist. As human beings blessed with the ability to think, we’re in a position to sort through the news, separate fact from fiction, and zero in on the truth. Are we doing that to the best of our ability? You’ve probably heard about Macedonia, a small country in the Balkans, where Fake News is big business. Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but good jobs for young people are hard to come by. The town of Veles (population about 50,000) is home to over 100 websites dedicated to Fake News. Why? Because it pays. Facebook is the big engine that drives most traffic to news websites all over the world. When people visit these websites, which also contain ads, Google AdSense pays the website owner for each click. The more clicks the better for the owner. One underemployed young person in Veles figured this out. Others followed. They’ve bought domain names that sound legit and have been fooling people around the world ever since, including some main stream media outlets. These Balkan entrepreneurs don’t have a political agenda. They just publish the kind of fake news that draws the most hits. But here’s the thing. Most of this fake news is spread by social media and sometimes on TV. Newspaper readership is down, but it should really be up in a world where people want to think–where they choose to think. I don’t think the mainstream news media is our enemy. Sure there are overzealous reporters, just as there are overzealous businesspeople, lobbyists and you-name-it. Our Founding Fathers determined that a free press was essential to a democratic society. And a free press needs readers–the kind that think.
Back to the play. Kevin Moriarty explained his decision for the cross-gender casting in the Playbill. From “Ancient Greece to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Theatre, female characters were portrayed by male actors.” While there were complicated social and political reasons why this was done, the tradition continued. By the 19th Century, Sarah Bernhardt was travelling the world playing classic roles written for men, including Hamlet. Today, he says, all-female or all-males casts are common in classical and contemporary theater, and it’s not uncommon for an actor of one race to portray a character of a different race. “Audiences will have different responses,” he says, but this is “preferable to a dull night of seeing a play performed as a lifeless copy of previous productions from decades earlier.”
Maybe you don’t live in Dallas or won’t have the chance to visit and see the play before it ends its run on June 18. Why does Kevin Moriarty’s production of Inherit the Wind matter to you? Kevin is the Artistic Director of the Dallas Theatre Center (DTC), which is about to receive the 2017 Regional Tony Award in New York City this Sunday night. That means people in the theater world consider it the best regional theatre in the country for its “innovative, dynamic programming” and its “significant mark on the Dallas community as well as the American Theater at large.”
Any story about Inherit the Wind would be incomplete without mentioning Margo Jones. Born in a little Texas town in “the Bible Belt,” she studied drama, travelled the world, lived for a time in NY–where she discovered Tennessee Williams and co-directed the premier of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. In 1954, she was the director of a small Dallas theatre in Fair Park, which is home to the Texas State Fair. A friend told her about a play she might be interested in that had been turned down by eight Broadway producers, but said it would take “guts to do it in the bible belt.” She loved the play. So did the conservative audience in Dallas. So did the critics, and the rest is history. Margo is known today for launching the regional theater movement in North America. Sadly, she died at 43, accidentally poisoned by a chemical used to clean the rug in her apartment, only six months after launching Inherit the Wind. Not all good things comes to an end. Margo’s theatre is still in Fair Park but today it bears her name. In 2009, the DTC moved to a larger home, The Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, in the heart of the Dallas Arts District, but still uses the Kalita Humphreys Theater for some of its productions.
And here’s some more good news, brought to us by the play. It turns out that religion and evolution are not mutually exclusive, that they can both thrive and co-exist. During the trial, Henry Drummond puts Matthew Harrison Brady on the stand as an expert on the Bible. (The judge has denied him three expert scientific witnesses.) When asked how old the earth is, Brady says it’s 6,000 years old, like the Bible tells us.
- Drummond asks: if local rocks and fossils are millions of years old, how can this be?
- Drummond then suggests: since the sun wasn’t created until the 4th day, maybe that first day of creation was millions of years long?
“An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral.” Henry Drummond
Whether you’re the kind of person who plucks your apple off the tree of knowledge or you’re someone who questions religious faith, I think we can all agree that every human being is born with a brain–and the right to use it.