“Scapegoat” at Pillsbury House: a Powerful Look at a Century of Race and Justice

Scapegoat, a world premiere by Christina M. Ham at Pillsbury House Theatre, takes a magnifying glass to a specific point in history in order to ask just how far we have come.

Even though the play is about the violence that occurred at the Elaine, Arkansas, race riot of 1919, violence is rarely shown on stage. The facts about this little-known piece of history are astounding. It is estimated that 100-240 African Americans died at these riots, and five white people were also killed. Scapegoat’s first act concerns the days leading up to the riot, with a Black sharecropper, Virgil (James A. Williams), attempting to unionize to obtain fairer wages while a white, starving sharecropper (Dan Hopman) tries to solve his problems with violence. The second act concerns two interracial couples in 2016, who visit Elaine, Arkansas, unaware of the tragedy that took place in the town almost 100 years before.

 Scapegoat is written to show the private, emotionally drained lives of two couples in vastly different situations. And it is all the more powerful for focusing on these intimate moments. In the first act, Regina Marie Williams as Effie Reynolds, Virgil Hillman’s wife, steals the show. Her character is both a stoic rock for Virgil and an emotionally distraught mother who has just lost her son. James A. Williams’ speech to the union meeting in the first act is nothing short of breathtaking.

In the second act, James A. Williams as Greg Mascalan is able to bring humorous moments to the forefront. It speaks to the depth of the acting here that each character in the second act is absolutely distinct from characters in the first.

All four characters are upper- or upper-middle-class in the second act, an intentionally stark contrast to the extreme poverty of the sharecroppers in the first, it also feels as though more complexity could have been drawn here. And with that complexity, more accessibility to the characters with their New Yorkers and newest iPhones and four-story Brownstone houses in Brooklyn. It’s easier for us to point and say ‘well, we’re not them.’ But the truth is, we are. And to lose that sense of resonance hurts the show.

The first act feels like a show in itself. And the same can be said for the second act. Both can stand on their own, but the combination of the two together attempts to add layers to each. Although the second act is not as dramatic as the first and is less accessible, it still makes us think about our roots and how we need to look toward the past if we are to evolve in the future. From the moment the play starts, everyone in the audience knows how the first act will end: in violence and tragedy. We can’t change that, but we can help to change racism and violence in our selves and our communities. Pointing fingers doesn’t get us anywhere, as Scapegoat proves and proves quite well indeed.