Tiffany Addison and Ronald L. Conner. Photo by Congo Square Theatre Company

Review: A SMALL OAK TREE RUNS RED at Congo Square Theatre

Lekethia Dalcoe’s A SMALL OAK TREE RUNS RED resurrects history in a manner that should make the living uncomfortable within painful truths buried each day. Directed by Harry Lennix, it’s a story that begins in the turmoil of the dead being stuck in purgatory. We move backwards, after several hideous acts that have already transpired at the start of the play, set in the South where Blacks are considered a fixture to plantations and their owners, while being hunted and lynched.

The stage is engulfed by a huge oak tree adorned by nooses and paper notes as leaves, which are fixed to the branches to aid the characters in purgatory towards rediscovering their truths. Stuck in this awful state between heaven and hell are Mary Turner (Tiffany Addison), Hayes Turner (Ronald L. Conner) and Sidney Johnson (Gregory Fenner). The narrative hinges upon the after effects of Sydney Johnson killing the plantation owner he worked for, which also leads to his lynching, along with his friends Hayes and Mary Turner, who was 8 months pregnant when hunted down by the lynch mob for their part in trying to help their friend Sydney.

Much of the play circles around remembering and flashbacks. Mary Turner’s unwillingness to face the truth and not bury all of the ills that plague her in the living is holding her and Sydney in purgatory. Somehow, her remembering will soften Sydney’s anger and allow them to transition forward. There is the idea that when we bury those truths that leave scars, we live a far more painful life in trying to forget. The play beckons us to consider how dangerous it is for us to forget the crimes of inhumanity brought upon African-Americans and to remain present in remembrance of the atrocities that still exist to this day.

I’m not sure if the play completely perfects the extreme urgency that it delivers in dialogue. We are told about the critical events that led up to the current state, but we needed more inclusive moments. I wonder what would the emotional impact be if we were told less and were included more on the visual force of the initial turmoil; the shooting of the plantation owner; the lynch mobs; the spewing of foul words of evil. If these moments had an opportunity to manifest among the audience, as it has with each character, then Sydney’s anger would be even more compelling to the onlooker. Instead, we are immediately thrust into Sidney Johnson’s space of inner conflict that is projected loudly through what often just feels like yelling. Fenner’s Sidney is in a constant battle with the spirits of purgatory, so he has to manufacture contorting his body and going into convulsions from the beginning to the end of the play, which is no easy feat, yet he accomplishes this effortlessly. While credit has to be given to for maintaining the high impact of vocal somersaults and extreme body movement, his overall performance felt limited by the very same actions. His character is not allowed to emotionally develop to this heighten point of anger that it demands.

Fenner’s best moments as Sydney were during his tender exchanges with Mary as they playfully re-enacted fairy tales that didn’t include Blacks on the receiving end of happy-ever-after. It is at this point we are allowed to truly see Fenner’s range as an actor. Unlike, Tiffany Addison’s character, Mary Turner is given greater range and space to evolve emotionally. We watch Addison masterfully mature as the larger story is told. Addison garners the audience’s attention immediately with her riveting and chilling reenactment of how she was burned and drugged by the lynch mob at 8 months pregnant, which causes her to prematurely give birth, and she’s then forced to witness the murder of her baby by the same mob. It takes a special type of tenure as an actor for Addison to deliver such an enthralling performance.

Where there are minor points that could be enhanced, by no means does this take away from the overall message in playwright, Lekethia Dalcoe’s work. The set is a great work of art and its actors are charged with a daring challenge. This is a play that all should witness, both families and communities at large. This play demands us to remain accountable in remembering history and the continued injustice of African Americans and the desperate need to rid evil acts that continue to plague all of humanity.

About author

Naima Dawson

Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.