with pigment: Lee and Skraastad in StageWorks Brutal
Land of Make-Believe
Cornelius Eady, Directed by Laura Margolis
StageWorks, North Pointe Cultural Center,
Kinderhook, through Sept. 22
B. Smith (Danielle Skraastad) kneels before the 6-foot-long
rectangular pool of water downstage center then slowly recoils
from it. Mr. Zero (Harrison Lee) stands slightly upstage left
of Smith, letting the full horror of her handiwork sink into
her and into the audience. Pity, horror, contempt, sympathy,
anger and longing seem to play between them. No one speaks.
Mr. Zero’s last line, “She only has me, after she removes
her hands from our ears,” hangs in the mind between the sound
of the waves splashing and the sight of the shifting blue-green
light of the cyclorama upstage. The pair are enclosed by the
6-foot-tall white picket fence as if in prison or a cemetery.
For 30 seconds there are only stares and silence, then blackness.
Imagination continues what has been a string of September
StageWorks hits. As with Wit in 2000 and The Laramie
Project in 2001, the Laura Margolis-directed Brutal
Imagination is one of the finest productions presented
in the region this year. Well-acted and well-staged, Brutal
Imagination shows what an Equity troupe can do when they
challenge themselves and an audience. This 67-minute, poetic
one-act is as trenchant, engaging and entertaining a play
as a theater lover could hope to find. New, thoughtful and
socially relevant, this is a production that should not be
missed, especially after the timid summer productions in the
The playwright’s conceit here is inspired: Playwright Cornelius
Eady creates as a character the black man whom Susan Smith
initially blamed for carjacking her Mazda Protégé and taking
her two children with it. Smith is the South Carolina mother
who eventually was convicted of drowning her two sons in 1994,
and the play, like last year’s Laramie Project, uses
the actual reports of the nine-day investigation into the
carjacking, the numerous sightings of the imaginary black
man in the “toboggan-type knit hat,” and the transcript of
the subsequent trial to weave a tale on multiple levels.
Imagination unfolds as Mr. Zero tries to explain why Smith
created him—“If I am alive, then so are they [her 3-year-old
and 14-month-old sons]”—and why society was so eager to believe
in him: There were numerous “eyewitnesses,” as well as a convenience-store
surveillance tape that was said to show Mr. Zero. For nine
days, Smith played out her lie, praying with her church, gaining
sympathy, until she cracked under repeated police questioning.
Imagination never cracks, however. Fliers fitting the
generic profile—“black male in his 40s, wearing jeans, a flannel
shirt and a toboggan-type knit hat”—are nailed to the white
picket fence around the stage. Mr. Zero flirts with Smith
one moment, dances with her, then denounces her, moving her
every minute closer to confession and epiphany.
Into the fabric of the play, Eady weaves the case of Bostonian
Charles Stuart, who killed his wife and shot himself, blaming
a black man whom he alleged had robbed them. In a stunning
series of characterizations, Eady has Mr. Zero play out other
fictional blacks who serve the dominant culture: Uncle Tom,
Aunt Jemima, Steppin Fetchit, and Staggerlee. Each contributes
to Smith’s need for the fantastical Mr. Zero and for society’s
need to believe Smith.
Skraastad and Lee allow Smith and the multiple characters
Mr. Zero creates to seep through them. They allow an audience
to empathize and understand the characters, a rarity anywhere.
Their performances are not the mannered, labored, showy affairs
that would pass for “acting” in lesser hands. Each actor handles
the frequent verse passages with the same ease they do the
prose lines, rendering Brutal Imagination both realistic
and fantastic in the same heartbeat. Margolis’ deft direction
keeps Brutal Imagination vibrant, skillful and as striking
as the production’s final image. StageWorks has added another
unique and worthy production to its impressive history.