One could only wish that a play based on a 1965 novel and 1967 film about intransigent racism among nativist whites in the South would feel like a musty museum piece. Indeed, I’ll confess that five or six years ago I myself likely would have wondered how relevant a play like In the Heat of the Night was to what many of us considered the “post-racial” Obama era. Alas, in the wake of all that’s happened in the past half-decade, including – especially – the dismaying influence of Nazis and clan members in our political arena, Matt Pelfrey’s stage adaptation of this civil-rights-era-defining book and film speaks all too depressingly to our present moment.
Pelfrey’s play takes the main premise of John Ball’s mystery novel but adds a final plot twist that spectators familiar with either the book or film will not expect. The setting is a small town in Alabama, in 1962. Sam Wood (Jonathan Visser), a police officer, has found the body of a wealthy local real estate developer, Charles Tatum (Brett Sullivan Santry) in the middle of the street; he appears to be the victim of a homicide. Police Chief Gillespie (Daniel Pivovar) orders Wood and fellow police officer Pete (Tal Kroser) to be on the lookout for vagrants and strangers as primary suspects; Wood finds such a stranger in Virgil Tibbs (Kevin H. Moore), a well-dressed black man waiting for a train at the local station. Turns out, to the surprise of the openly racist cops, that Tibbs is a police officer himself, a detective from California, no less, who specializes in solving homicides. When the dead man’s close friend, local bigwig Endicott (Arthur Peden) discovers this, he uses his connections to get Tibbs loaned to the local police force until the case is solved, resulting in predictable tensions between a white community convinced of its racial superiority and the hotshot black detective who is accustomed to being addressed as Mr. Tibbs.
Director Monteze Freeland stages the play in a manner that recalls the cinematic quick cut: very short scenes are linked together with film noir-inflected jazz music that helps sweep the action along (sound design is by Wayne Gaines), and even though cast members play multiple roles and have many off-stage costume changes (clothes by Cheryl El-Walker), the transitions are tight and smoothly choreographed. The plot of the play has some confusing gaps and elisions – for example, the relationship between Endicott and Tatum’s daughter (Jenny Malarkey) is unclear, and the plot thread involving accusations that Wood has raped and impregnated the teenaged Noreen Purdy (also played by Malarkey) is hard to follow – but the otherwise highly engaging story gets you on its ride and keeps you there to the end. Standout performances in this cast include Visser as Wood, the cop who is most changed by Tibbs’s presence on the force; Peden, playing the fastidious Endicott and (nearly unrecognizably) the gravel-voiced town mayor as well; and Pivovar, as the grumpy and beset-upon police chief.
Caution: the “N-word” gets thrown around a lot in the dialogue of this play, along with the word “boy”; indeed, even Oberst (Adam Seligson), a lowlife who’s been thrown in jail on flimsy charges and who might be exonerated by Tibbs’s investigation, doesn’t hesitate to call him “boy” to his face. Likewise, in defiance of any expectation of alliance among “others,” the town Jew Kaufman (also played by Seligson) physically attacks Tibbs with no compunction whatsoever. The play dives deep into representing a world and town in which whites unashamedly and unapologetically rank themselves above blacks, even when they themselves are inferior to Tibbs on every metric – less educated, less wealthy, less intelligent, less morally upright, and (particularly in the case of the white trash Purdy (Brett Sullivan Santry), his daughter Noreen, and her boyfriend Ralph (Seligson again)) far less socially valuable to society.
Freeland has clearly created a safe space for his mostly white cast to embody this ugly racial animus, and as a result they do so with conviction, which is crucial to the play’s driving energy. The crime has to be solved, but the suspense of the play derives less from “whodunit?” than from whether Tibbs will manage to get out of town unscathed, and for that, you need to believe that this town is populated by people who really do fear losing their power and social status to (what they see as) black and brown intruders. If this sounds familiar to you from the current debate over DACA or the Charlottesville rally last summer, well … I think that’s the point.