Parkland Elephants Grave2

Aaron Clark as the engineer rehearses a scene from 'Elephant's Graveyard' at the Harold & Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College in Champaign.

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Because of the subject matter of “Elephant’s Graveyard,” which opened Thursday evening at Parkland College, a friend declined to accompany me to the theater.

She missed an excellent performance.

It featured what one audience member called a “true ensemble” cast, well-directed by Latrelle Bright.

The 14 players, a mix of Parkland students and community members, individually ranged from good to really good.

Among those in the latter category are Parker Evans as the greedy, blustering circus Ringmaster and Kimmy Schofield as the Trainer who felt she had built up trust with the five elephants in the circus and that there was something off about Red Eldridge, an inexperienced man hired by the Tour Manager (Lincoln Machula, dashing in a strawboater hat, a gray suit and spats) to work as an assistant trainer in the circus.

George Brant’s script is an imagined oral history of the happenings in September 1916 in Kingsport, Tenn., and nearby Erwin, when the Sparks World Famous Shows circus performers come to Kingsport, Tenn. The circus members and the townsfolk of nearby Erwin, Tenn., tell of the incidents and how they felt.

Basically what happened was: Mary, then believed to be the largest animal alive on Earth, as always, led the circus parade. The newly hired Red was riding her. When Mary diverted from the Main Street parade lineup to go for a watermelon alongside the road, Red thrashed her with a hook. Enraged, Mary used her trunk to remove Red from her back, toss him down near a soda-pop stand and then crush his head.

The actions are only alluded to. There is no elephant puppetor figurine representing Mary or the other four elephants in the Sparks circus, nor is there an actor playing Red. The set by Michael O’Brien is minimal but strongly evokes a big-top arena, with red streamers stretching from the center of the ceiling and shadow puppets behind muslin curtains on the sides.

“It was so well-done. There was never a point when I couldn’t visualize what was going on,” one woman said during the talkback after the opening-night performance.

The show is presented in the round in the smaller black-box theater at Parkland. Even though, I could discern almost every word spoken by all the performers, even when they were not facing the section in which I sat.

In his script, which won the 2008 Keene Prize for Literature, Brant indirectly touches upon several themes, among them mob mentality (more than 1,500 turned out to watch “Murderous Mary” hanged from a huge crane in the railyard at Erwin); human’s dominion over animals; patriotism and American hubris; the Old Testament’s eye-for-an-eye creed vs. the New Testament; and greed — the Ringmaster mentions, two or three times, how Mary, the star performer in the traveling Sparks show, was valued at $8,000.

And then there is race. J’Lyn Hope, who’s excellent as the Hungry Townsperson, says toward the end of the play that elephants have long memories and people have shorts ones. “Nobody talks about the fact they used to hang colored boys in Erwin. They just talk about the elephant,” she says.

That seems to carry over to the present day. Documents in the lobby tell of how since 2016, Erwin (population 5,869 in 2017), perhaps from a collective sense ofguilt, has donated money from its Great Outdoors Festival to The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.

Through Oct. 13, the date of the final performance of “Elephant’s Graveyard” at Parkland, the Parkland College Theatre will accept donations, in person and online, for the Elephant Sanctuary.

Melissa Merli is a retired News-Gazette staff writer.