What can we gain by resurrecting decades-old court cases collecting dust in the law archives of a South Carolina town? After all, the cases are long closed, justice was served, and the requisite corrections made. However, when the cases in question set off a landmark Supreme Court decision, they are arguably worth a closer look. By the end of 1952, Pearson v. Elliott and Briggs vs. Elliott had opened and closed in the rural community of Clarendon County, S.C. But by the time the gavel called an end to the lawsuits, they had already become acause célèbre for the NAACP's chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who went on to position Briggs v. Elliott as the lead case in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.
What's more, the issues surrounding these events are still woefully close to home. The right to equitable, color-blind resources in every South Carolina public school remains a loaded topic in Charleston County. I recently sat in on a District 20 parents meeting at Burke High School during which Burke families and alumni gave vent to the ongoing funding disparity between their school and Wando, citing racial undertones.
More ominously, there is ample, chilling evidence that some Charlestonians are still targeted for the color of their skin. It seems clear that most among us could benefit from a seat in the way-back machine — a desegregated seat no less — to better get our heads around these ongoing struggles with race and social justice.
Timed for African-American History Month, Charleston Stage's probing, proficient performance of The Seat of Justice dramatizes the courtroom events that were meant to correct grievous inequities among American citizens. Penned by the company's artistic director, Julian Wiles, the work applies an earnest rigor of research to the topic, serving up an easy-on-the-psyche accessibility that makes it suitable for audiences of all ages.
Echoing the events explored in the work, when Marshall came down from New York to represent Elliott, Charleston Stage has imported actors from off for this production. Crystin Gilmore breathes warmth and wit into the role of the narrator, Mrs. Ruby Cornwell, a Civil Rights activist who before her death relayed her front-row experience at the Briggs v. Elliott to Mr. Wiles. For actors, historical drama often requires packing everyday parlance with bone-dry fact, which can be as cumbersome as piling on starchy period petticoats. Ms. Gilmore does this heavy lifting with ease and appeal.
As Rev. A.J. De Laine, Marvin Bell is the honey-tongued moral center of play, gently shepherding his flock to sign petitions which may further their cause, but may also threaten livelihoods and even lives. Local talent stands up to Bell's elegance, with Henry Clay Middleton commanding the stage as a charismatic, comedy-inflected Marshall.
As the legendary Charleston federal judge Julius Waties Waring, Victor Clark is agreeably astute, and Beth Curley adds suitable spark as his firebrand wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Waring. The scenes between her and Gilmore are particularly delicious, equal parts politesse and candor, and as layered and intricate as a Lady Baltimore Cake.
After all, unpacking the whys and wherefores of courtroom proceedings can be tough stuff. Wiles, though, is a pro at leavening laden times. He does his due diligence and gives the people what they need. But he is also canny enough about what plays in the Dock Street Theatre to also give audiences what they want. He'll finish off pointed plot developments with a spoonful of sugar to temper the bitter taste of man's lesser nature.
By the same token, The Seat of Justice doesn't pass up the chance to introduce crowd-pleasing hymns and songs skillfully adapted from the era of Guy Carawan, who is known for introducing "We Shall Overcome" during the Civil Rights Movement.
The production's spare set centers on a two-toned backdrop broadcasting the words "colored" and "white," which is flanked by whitewashed panels punctuated by an array of mounted white chairs. During some scenes, a gleaming, outsize American flag unfurls atop those words, unsettling proof that the injustice at play transpired on American soil. That point is underscored again in the program, which lists the time of play's action as 1946-54 and the place baldly as United States of America.
For Wiles, holding audiences accountable for the sins of their forefathers is medicine that is best served without chill. Quietly adept and designed to be inclusive, The Seat of Justice at once points a finger and offers a hug.