Saturday, February 18, 2012

'Ossian Sweet' resurrects a powerful piece of history

By Cheryl Thornburg
  Sometimes it’s an outstanding performance, sometimes it’s polished costuming and sets that make a play special.  And sometimes,  it’s the compelling story and powerful words that make a performance memorable.
  Such is the case with Reading Community Players current production “My Name Is Ossian Sweet.”   It is a staged reading with a large cast, minimal props, and virtually no sets. It is the story that will stay with you.
   Playwright Gordon Bennett tells a powerful true story that we all should have learned about in history class -- but didn’t. It chronicles the life of a young black man who grew up in rural Florida in a community thick with racism and injustice. His name was Ossian Sweet.
  He escapes that life through education, becomes a doctor, and moves to Detroit in search of a better life for his family. In 1925, when he and his wife find their dream home, which is in an all-white neighborhood, events ensue that make history, albeit little known history.
  The Ku Klux Klan had a large following at that time and as soon as the Sweets move in,  they are besieged by an irate mob, throwing rocks and threatening them.  Since there had been previous similar incidents that turned violent, they have several guns in the home to protect themselves. Ossian’s brother Henry is in the house, as well as eight other people.
   As the ordeal continues, Henry fires some warning shots from the second floor in an attempt to disperse the crowd.  One man is killed and another, wounded.
  The police immediately arrest everyone in the house and charge all 11 with murder.
   A fledgling NAACP persuades Clarence Darrow, who had recently won the Scopes trial to take on the case. He represents the defendants in two trials, one ending in a hung jury and the second an acquittal. It marks the first time that an African-American was
acquitted of murder by an all-white jury.
  Director Ruth Martelli has assembled a diverse cast including seasoned veterans and some who are setting foot on stage for the first time to recreate Ossian’s story.
  The title role is played by Chordero Ellison, one of the newcomers to RCP.   Although at times his speaking is a little rushed, possibly due to first night nerves, he creates a very believable, sympathetic Ossian. I suspect we’ll see more of him in future productions.
   Clarence Darrow is played by one of the veterans, Chuck Gallagher, whose experience shows as he delivers some of the best lines in the play.  In his cross examination, for example, he refers to a “neighborly”mob with a gleam in his eye and just the right touch of sarcasm. When the NAACP representatives are seeking his help, he finally declares “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” Delivering the words of one of the most famous orators of our time, has got to be a dream role for any actor, and Gallagher makes the most of it.
    Daphne McMaster turns in a standout performance as Gladys, Ossian’s wife, who also narrates the show. Her Gladys is rock solid, unshakable in her faith in Ossian and unswerving in her loyalty. Having seen her in the comedy  “The Little Dog Laughed,” last Fall where she showed a real flair for comedy, she now proves that she’s a very capable dramatic actress as well.
  There are many solid performances: Michael Reese as Ossian’s father,  Kevin Wade as Prosecutor Tom, Bill Santoro as Judge Murphy, Alexis Green as Ossian’s mother,  and Kennth Dreistadt as Alfred Andrews, a white supremacist.The latter delivers a bone-chilling speech suggesting that whites fight back or “be overwhelmed by the rising tide of color.”
  Such lines and Darrow’s defense are why this play is really a living history lesson.  It is a reminder for those of us who have lived through the early years of the Civil Rights movement and an education, for those who have not.  If I were a teacher, I would offer extra credit for students who attend the play.
   Rounding out the cast are Chance Singleton, Kristan Diaz-Cruz, Randy Miller, John Foster, Will Matthews, Brian Miller,  Bob Barsky, and Diann Stewart.
   There are only two more performances of this compelling play. Tonight, Saturday, Feb. 18 at 8 p.m and tomorrow, Sunday, Feb. 19 at 3 p.m.
  Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students.  Reservations may be made by calling the theatre at 610-374-0777 or through Brown Paper Tickets.  A free shuttle service is offered  from the parking lot at the 13th and Green School (enter at Greenwich Street) to the theatre and back. The theater is located at 403 N. 11th Street in Reading.
More information is available at


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