Scripted: Black Maria by Bennett Ayres

For our third Scripted on Sunday, January 8th, we will be performing Black Maria by Bennett Ayres.

Black Maria will be performed by EclecticPond Theatre Company in February, so this reading will be a preview of the work and a final step for Bennett as he finishes developing the play. Benjamin Schuetz, the new Artistic Director of ETC, will be directing, and I can’t wait to see how he brings this play to life.

If you’re familiar with the Indy theatre scene, you know Bennett. I’ve seen him write everything from science fiction to historical fiction, always with a mix of biting humor and compassion for his characters. I had the pleasure of working with Bennett last summer on The House of Blue Lights, an immersive play from NoExit Performance about the life of Skiles Test. While both The House of Blue Lights and Black Maria draw from true events in Indiana’s history, The House of Blue Lights was dreamy, melancholy. Black Maria is much sharper and saturated, with the entirety of the action taking place on a single night in Indianapolis. – July 4th, 1910.

Black Maria examines the contentious state of race relations in 1910. It was a time of great change for the city. In Indy, the population of African Americans rose 37% between 1900 and 1910. Later that year, Madame CJ Walker would move her company to the city. A second theatre owned by a black man was opening. And on the national stage, Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson were fighting for a boxing championship, with Jeffries portrayed as “White Hope” against a villainized Johnson.

In Bennett’s play, we see all of this through the eyes of Hatton, a disgraced patrolman who roams the streets of Indianapolis in his paddy wagon, the Black Maria. Hatton is a man living in fear. He is scared for the future. He is scared of what the country will become. He is scared that the outcome of Jeffries vs. Johnson will spark riots that will irreparably damage his city. He is convinced that he is the only one with the whole picture, and the only one with a plan to save Indianapolis.

Seeing the world through Hatton’s perspective is an uncomfortable place to be. Hatton abuses and disparages the black characters on stage, but he also seems convinced that they are stronger than him. He is certain that Johnson will pulverize Jeffries. This viewpoint is ugly and pessimistic, but Bennett makes the case for how powerful it can be. Fear is a taskmaster who keeps Hatton awake as he struggles to build a future for his unborn daughter.

Black Maria is a play where the audience is on the side of the antagonist, and we are made complicit in every decision Hatton makes. It’s a play about power and fear. As we embark on a new year, I think Black Maria is a beautiful and foreboding piece of art that everyone in Indianapolis should experience. Even though Black Maria takes place over a century ago, I can’t help but see our future in Hatton and the men around him.