Southwest Theatre Productions' Trade With Klan
In Donald E. Baker's new drama, the utter plainness of an Indiana small town makes its devotion to the KKK all the more shocking
Reviewed by Laura Jones, Fri., Jan. 31, 2020
Imagine for a moment Trump's world order gone awry. I know you think it already has. But consider for a moment the virus, spread. Every white person you know is in the Ku Klux Klan. The radio advertises their rallies as though they were Sunday picnics, and sometimes, they are. A conspiracy exists through the entire town – racism and exclusion – all in the guise of patriotism and civil protection. You can't so much as get married without donning a white hood and robe.
This not-so-opposite-land is the setting of Trade With Klan, a new play by Donald E. Baker, currently staged by Southwest Theatre Productions. TWK takes place not in the present or distant future, but the actual lived past of 1920s Indiana. The Klan at this time had "anywhere from 2 to 5 million members," according to the show's program, and a Grand Dragon named David Stephenson ran local and state politics, before raping and killing a 28-year-old woman and bringing his and the Klan's growing reign to an end.
Southwest Theatre Productions does a beautiful job of staging this fractured world in a homey, blue-shingled diner the color of robins' eggs. There's a gentle pacing to the cast that, I'll admit, usually drives me crazy in the theatre but here works due to the somber tone of the material. The audience is lulled. Words are considered, the way poems are.
Suzanne Orzech (Helen) as the brash, Klan-recruiting mom-next-door is a spark plug. Tom Swift as Rev. Gideon Heyward is like a Wilford Brimley gone horribly awry. Instead of safe platitudes, he spouts hatred warmed up beneath his Santa Claus beard. Emi Larraud as Daniel, the moral center of the play, shows that even for the best-intentioned of us, that center can waiver when rocked by the waters of complacency and the need for survival in a small town where Klansmen are also customers.
The story is still told squarely from the perspective of the white Protestants in town, and that, of course, is problematic. Daniel and other characters struggle with whether or not to join the Klan, but they still have that choice, while the only Black character – never seen – dies offstage in a horrible fire. Still, I liked most everything else about this show, particularly Baker's ability to write complex struggles devoid of melodrama. In today's climate, it would be easy for a play like this to teeter into preaching, especially when the main character is in fact a reverend.
TWK's success comes from the utter plainness of its milieu. This is a town we recognize. The Fourth of July banners hanging from the diner's register are familiar. The hardware store and the radio station blend so well into all we know and remember of America. The cross burnings, then, that pop up among the landscape are both horrifying and normalized, exactly like the environment we're staggering through today.
Trade With Klan sits in your soul the way the best of art does. Hats off to Baker and to Southwest Theatre Productions for staging its premiere run.
Trade With KlanSanta Cruz Theater, 1805 E. Seventh
Through Feb. 2
Running time: 1 hr., 45. min.