backstage (2006-12)

Our Historical Stage

The theatrics of Aug. 30, 1919

by Kevin Crowe

Imagine it’s late-August in Knoxville, 1919. Maurice Mayes, the rumored illegitimate son of Knoxville Mayor John E. MacMillan, is arrested, accused of killing Bertie Lindsay. You hear people gossip. This isn’t just any murder; Mrs. Lindsay, they say, she was a white woman.

It’s a story that doesn’t seem to fit. We often hear accounts of how progressive Knoxville was back in the old days. During the Civil War, we’re told, Knoxville would’ve been a part of the Union if it weren’t completely surrounded by Confederate sympathizers. But that view’s more revisionist than factual. Our town was actually split down the middle in terms of allegiance.

There are stories we like to tell outsiders. Yup, once upon a time, the good Mayor MacMillan employed troops to coordinate attacks on Ku Klux Klan strongholds. Back then, white Knoxvillians had an open-minded attitude and accepted many of their black townspeople. Pictures have survived showing black doctors, pharmacists, attorneys and elected officials. It doesn’t get much more progressive than old Knoxville when compared to the rest of the South at that time. That’s what we say.

Yet the arrest and the ensuing backlash are important pieces of Knoxville’s often-turbulent history, although it’s a complicated event to puzzle together from encyclopedic footnotes and archived newspaper microfiche.

The story reads something like a blueprint for the snowball effect. Mayes was a well-known figure in local politicking circles. He was a mulatto, half white/half black, who liked to try his hand at being deputy sheriff from time to time. Some knew him as an exceptional braggart. On Aug. 30, he was charged with murder. There were hints of growing unrest in the city, and Mayes was sent in shackles to Chattanooga for safekeeping.

Slowly, a mob assembled around the Knox County jailhouse. They stormed it, eventually, and released several white inmates and promptly looted the liquor storerooms.

Unsatisfied and boozy, the mob staggered over to the black part of town. By this time many of the prison guards had joined the frenzy as they fired into occupied buildings. The buildings fired back.

When the dust settled, 36 whites were arrested, but no convictions were ever recorded. Mayes wasn’t as lucky. He was convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution. By 1922, both Mayes and the riot were buried.

“One of the things we found out was that the African-American community as a whole wanted to maintain the memory of this event,” says Linda Parris-Bailey, the artistic director of the Carpetbag Theatre. “I brought the idea to the ensemble company because I had heard the story. I had heard it from older people, and they kept telling me about the Knoxville that existed in pre-war 1900s. They talked about how this incident changed many of their lives.”

The Carpetbag Theatre, one of the oldest African-American owned and operated theater troupes in the country, has focused its efforts on the power of storytelling ever since it began in the late ’60s. 1919: Knoxville’s Red Summer has come to epitomize the troupe’s mission statement: Address the issues and dreams of people who have historically been silenced by racism, classism, sexism and ageism; tell the stories of empowerment; celebrate our culture; and reveal hidden stories.

“We believe that art has a way to speak things that symposiums, speeches and talking heads cannot,” says Marquez Rhyne, the theater’s managing director. “It’s a song, a movement, a gesture—a story—that can get into the hearts of people.”

For the last 15 years, the story of Red Summer has been in a constant state of evolution. Through the years, more historical documents have been uncovered which help clarify the days prior to the riot. As the event becomes clearer, so does the play.

In addition to careful historical scrutiny, each production of Red Summer has a bit of Carpetbag’s flair for improvisation. The experience is similar to a jazz standard interpreted by Coltrane: there’s a basic framework, but the actors have the freedom to ad lib, adding their own thoughts and feelings to the performance. The script, for the most part, is just a guideline.

“We’re always breaking the wall,” Parris-Bailey says. “That’s just a part of what we do. We engage the audience in dialogue. We close the wall; we open the wall.”

There’s one part in the play, known as the Ensemble Viewpoint Scene, wherein the actors actually carry on a conversation with the audience. It’s a chance to address new viewpoints from both the actors and the audience.

“Whatever story you get—whatever story you hear and take away with you—is not just the story that was told, but also the story that you brought,” Rhyne explains. “You can take value from these stories and apply it to your life. Wherever it hits you, let it hit you.”

The guiding philosophy behind each performance is simple: if art can reflect the stories of a community, then it will have a deeper meaning. Red Summer leaves audiences with several resonant questions. What are you going to do about it? What’s next? In 1919, there were race riots in 24 cities around the country. Why do these stories still affect audiences in such a meaningful way?

“We know there’s a response that we need to make, because it’s part of our mission,” Parris-Bailey says, adding: “We have an activist bent to our work. We don’t apologize for it. We don’t try to hide it.”

Who: Carpetbag Theatre