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Writer-director Gary Earl Ross produces compelling 'Mark of Cain'

Gary Earl Ross is a man of many letters, a skill set that includes great prowess as a playwright. He’s gaining national renown and his recent anti-war work, “The Guns of Christmas,” continues to be lauded.

Despite this recent success, Ross has discovered that getting plays produced is no easy task and he was stunned to discover that the writing of “The Mark of Cain,” a fictionalized version of a civil rights trial in 1925 Detroit, was actually the easy part.

Ross, for five years, had shopped “Cain” in disparate places stretching from Bend, Ore., to Harlem in New York City, receiving positive responses from nearly all readers with several promises of future production – soon, rather than later, said most – initial hopes failing because of acting company financial woes or their “artistic differences.”

Kurt Schneiderman’s Subversive Theatre Collective has finally brought the play from page to stage – after a false start of its own – and “The Mark of Cain” has opened with Ross in the title role. The production, directed by Michael Lodick, is the sixth installment of Subversive’s “Black Power Play Series.” It’s a very worthy addition.

Some background: 90 years ago, Ossian Sweet was a successful black doctor in Detroit and as his practice prospered, he bought a house for his family in an all-white suburb. The locals, bent on keeping the “integrity” of their neighborhood intact, prepared to make life miserable for the Sweets. One Motor City August night, mobs stoned the bungalow, panicking Ossian, family and friends and threatening mayhem and murder.

Shots rained down from a second-floor window, killing one rioter, wounding another.

Police calmed but arrested Ossian, his brother Henry and nine others in the house. All 11 were eventually charged with murder. A trial was readied. The city tensed.

The NAACP hired Clarence Darrow, the “attorney for the damned,” for the defense. Fresh from the lurid Leopold-Loeb thrill-killer murder trials in Chicago and the controversial Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, Darrow faced seemingly long odds for acquittal. “My clients are charged with murder,” said Darrow, “but they are really charged with being black.” Happily, two trials eventually brought the family justice.

Some have questioned playwright Ross about the need to fictionalize the Sweet case, arguing that the real story was already compelling. True. But, still intact is the Byronian figure of Ossian, the victorious “state of mind” defense put forth by the cagey, folksy Charles Dunham – read Darrow here – plus pieces of dialogue taken from trial transcripts and Darrow’s seven hours of closing summation, stunning final minutes, a heartbreaking coda and hints of mystery, sleuthing and forensics. Everything works.

Lodick moves the many scenes along well in the cramped and clunky Manny Fried Playhouse. Set pieces are bargain-basement. After a while, you won’t notice.

Ross is Ossian Cain, stately, scholarly, fiercely protective of his family, terribly wronged. His shouted warning from the witness stand – “Hatred has consequences!” lingers powerfully long after curtain call. He can write, he can act.

Lawrence Rowswell is the disarming Durham, so smart, thorough, demanding and outrageous – what a marvelous role for this veteran character actor. He’s fun to watch.

Candace M. Whitfield, Aqueira Roberts, Greg Howze, stalwart Brendan J. Cunningham, Murry Galloway, Rich Kraemer, Tamara Hopersberger and the excellent J. Tim Raymond complete the ensemble; they are key to this sprawling piece.

Yes, the story is compelling. Thanks to Gary Earl Ross for restoring its message.

THEATER REVIEW

“The Mark of Cain”

4 stars (out of four)

Drama presented by Subversive Theatre Collective at the Manny Fried Playhouse through April 30.

Tickets: $25 general admission, $20 seniors and students.

Info: subversivetheatre.org or call 408-0499.

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