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‘Gospel’ tale too good for Andre De Shields to pass up

 Andre DeShields (pictured IndianRepertory Theatre) stars 'The Gospel According James' being re-staged Victory Gardens

Andre DeShields (pictured at Indiana Repertory Theatre) stars in "The Gospel According to James," being re-staged at Victory Gardens

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‘The Gospel
to James’

 May 14-June 12

 Victory Gardens Theater,
2433 N. Lincoln
 Tickets, $20-$50

 (773) 871-3000;

Updated: August 25, 2011 12:32AM

In 1994, actor Andre De Shields was working in New York when a friend handed him a book — A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story by James Cameron — that he had inscribed with the words “Someday you’re going to need this.”

“I had no idea who James Cameron was and no idea why I would need this book,” De Shields recalled.

Fast forward to 2010. De Shields is working with playwright Charles Smith on the New York production of his play “Knock Me a Kiss” when he gets a call from Victory Gardens Theater artistic director Dennis Zacek. Smith is a member of the Victory Gardens playwrights ensemble and Zacek wanted to talk about a new piece Smith was working on called “The Gospel According to James,” a drama inspired by the experiences of a man, James Cameron, who survived a lynching in Indiana in 1930.

“As Dennis talked about the show, a connection began to ping around my head like a pinball machine,” De Shields said. “My friend must have been an oracle.”

De Shields read the book and discovered “this horrific tale about love and politics and romance and brutality and this still-festering wound we call racism in America,” he said. “I immediately accepted the role of James.”

“The Gospel According to James” makes its Chicago debut at Victory Gardens, under the direction of Chuck Smith (no relation to the playwright).

“It’s a play about big universal ideas — forgiveness and redemption and reconciliation,” De Shields said.

The genesis of the play began at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where it debuted in March. Artistic director Janet Allen commissioned Smith to write a play about the lynching that took place in Marion, Ind.

Cameron was 16 when he survived the lynching that killed his friends Thomas Shipp, 18, and Abram Smith, 19. They were hanged in the town square by a mob, allegedly for the murder of a young white man, Claude Deeter, and the rape of his girlfriend, Mary Ball (a charge that was later dropped).

Smith says “The Gospel According to James” is not a historical retelling of the tragedy. Instead, it’s his interpretation of what happened.

Smith sets the play in the early 1980s as the two survivors — James (De Shields) and Mary (Linda Kimbrough) — have a chance meeting in Marion. They look back on those days through a series of flashbacks and relay their polarized versions of what happened.

At first, Smith wondered how he would find his way into such a disturbing story.

“For me, the challenge was how to write a play about a double lynching and make it a play that people would want to see,” Smith said.

Smith hoped to uncover the truth about the incident via extensive research. But as he soon learned accounts of events surrounding the lynching were muddled; no two were the same.

“At first, I felt like a detective, Smith said, “and then I felt like I stepped into the twilight zone. It was silly to think so many years later that I would find a sort of irrefutable truth. What people saw and remembered varied greatly, and I found that a fascinating way to explore how forgiveness works and how we deal with traumatic events.”

Cameron, who died in 2006 at 92, was convicted as an accessory to the murder and served four years in prison before being paroled and years later pardoned by former Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh. He became a civil rights activist and founded the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.

Cameron also recounted his version of what happened that fateful night many times over the years. Smith says even his account was full of holes.

“I think he was a very driven man, very passionate about his mission,” Smith said. “I think he was sincere but I also believe he didn’t have a clue as to what happened that night. The only thing he knew was the story he had become accustomed to telling.

“I came to the conclusion that the drive to keep the story alive and his self-appointed crusade to collect the artifacts for his museum was valuable. Far more valuable than the story he tells of that night. If he’s willing to step forward, he’s allowed to tell the story he chooses.”

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