Chicago Theater Review: THE TRIAL OF MOSES FLEETWOOD WALKER (Black Ensemble Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 20, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Jackie Robinson was not, it seems, the first black baseball player in the major leagues. Long before 1946, Moses Fleetwood Walker was a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings and later for the Syracuse Stars. He was an invaluable athlete circa 1884, so much so that local racists became fans and competitors envious.


But that feat is not what’s at stake in Black Ensemble Theater’s impressive world premiere, the theater’s first non-musical in a quarter century. (There is a live—and slightly melodramatic–musical accompaniment created by director Jackie Taylor Teamer,Gallagher,Reevesand played by five musicians, so it’s no total departure from their established norm.)

The historical and dramatic interest lies in the title of Chicago playwright Ervin Gardner’s The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker—and it’s one more response to the very contemporary 2015 question: “Do black lives matter?”

In 1891, even before Jim Crow legislation had been established by the “separate but equal” Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, this Syracuse, New York local hero—a sort of 19th century Michael Jordan—was charged with second degree murder (he was not lynched, as over 200 had already been in that year alone, mostly in the South). The mulatto defendant, a solid citizen whose dad was a doctor, was accused of deliberately stabbing to death a white man, Patrick Curley Murray, in a barroom brawl on April 9, 1891 after he was assaulted by a drunken mob.


Walker, who had not initiated the quarrel and who had been struck in the back of his head by a rock, pleads self-defense. As Gardner recreates the trial, we hear, from dueling galleries, representative reactions from the segregated courtroom observers: One Alabama hater vociferously urges a rope rather than a jury, while the three African-American watchers despair that Moses can get anything but vigilante justice (projections on the huge white wall behind the elaborate tribunal provide context for the legal pyrotechnics).


Andre Teamer plays the accused with dignity and restraint, while, as his frightened wife Arabella, Leslie Collins suggests the fear for his life that Walker works hard to conceal. His brother Weldy Walker (Tamarus Harvell) provides solid support, buttressing the efforts of defense counsel Harrison Hoyt (firebrand Nick Ferrin) to expose all the contradictions, perjured testimony, and hidden hatred in the case against Walker. T.E. Hancock (Jack Birdwell) incarnates white vengeance as he all but denies that a black-on-white killing can ever be excused.


Of course, the verdict cannot be divulged. It’s enough to say that Taylor’s 19-member ensemble acquit themselves well in this sturdy if stolid forensic recreation (which–warning to the sensitive–repeatedly includes the “N” word, as well as the term “racist” which wasn’t common at the time).

The story’s power, of course, persists in the present: So many young blacks don’t even get the benefit of a trial since shoot-to-kill–by George Zimmerman and countless cops–is a quicker final solution. Walker’s trial was 124 years ago–but the hate crime could be tomorrow.


photos by Danny Nicholas

The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker
Black Ensemble Theater
BET Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark Street
Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on March 15, 2015
for tickets, call 773.769.4451 or visit Ticketmaster

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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