Ah, that old devil memory. Who can trust it?
"Everybody's Ruby," a work of historical fiction by Thulani Davis, is a story of recollective fragments -- dozens of them, some clear, many hazy -- of terrible times in the early 1950s Jim Crow town of Live Oak, Fla. It is a place where one native son observes, there are two kinds of people: "Those that call the shots and those just tryin' to survive."
The shot-callers are white, the survivors black. The good old boy, lynch-mob mentality is powerful. The white town physician, Doc Adams, is hated and revered at once. Part-time politico and full-time lecher -- with probably an assortment of Klan garb at home -- Doc nevertheless has an eye on Ruby McCollum, the beautiful black wife of numbers-running Sam McCollum, a closet player in Live Oaks politics and a hush money contributor to Doc's higher state office fantasies.
Doc, knowing Sam is a proud father and husband, sees some blackmail possibilities in his illicit trysts with Ruby, who rather likes the attention and perversely, the danger of such an affair.
In dozens of flashbacks, through interviews with reluctant townsfolk, the Ruby-Doc-Sam story unfolds and quickly we learn that there is murder. It's no secret Ruby pulled the trigger on Doc. There is a shocking, kangaroo trial, a prison sentence. The once quiet but haughty Ruby, who never seemed to share in the everyday plight of her fellow blacks, becomes a national figure. She's "everybody's Ruby now," say her neighbors.
Into town comes black newspaper reporter Zora Neale Hurston. Assigned to the trial, she's of course stonewalled at every turn. Denied access to Ruby, Zora seeks clues where she can, even conjuring up a series of visions based on her interest in voodoo. "Everybody's Ruby" gets a little strange here.
Zora enlists William Bradford Huie, a white investigative journalist, to aid her. They're an odd couple, ebony and ivory seekers of the truth. Sorting out who did what to whom, when and why, proves daunting. Eventually, some closure is established. The close-mouthed citizenry of Live Oaks were not much help.
There really was such a sordid case, and Zora Neale Hurston and William Bradford Huie were real people. Hurston was a novelist and dramatist and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s and '30s. Huie spent a career fighting hate and injustice. They may have met, they may have been a team. It's possible but unlikely. Playwright Davis and her blending of fact and fiction will have playgoers scurrying to library reference stacks.
Ujima Theatre Company is always thought-provoking. "Everybody's Ruby" -- subtitled "The Story of a Murder in Florida" -- is maddening in some respects, though. The many blackouts, some mere snippets of plot, usually involve the moving about of Spartan props. This takes time, and story momentum is often lost. Also, figuring out the timeline is a challenge. Then, in two post-trial, epiloguelike scenes, affirmation of what really happened is played out and some biographical blanks on Hurston and Huie are penciled in. The scenes, as helpful as they are, come from nowhere.
Director Ron O.J. Parsons has done a yeoman's job trying to keep scenes moving -- including the use of an eclectic musical soundtrack; here's a chance to hear Big Mama Thornton and Johnny Ray together for the first time. Parsons' ensemble is very fine, even though we never get to know anybody well, even Ruby, played wonderfully by Buffalo's best, Lorna Hill.
Nas I. Afi is Zora, and Timothy Finnegan, an in-demand actor these days, is Huie, and their scenes together are electric. Excellent moments come particularly from Todd Benzin, as hateful Doc; Willie Judson, powerful as Sam; Dwight Simpson, G. Anton Moore, Paul O'Hern, James Feutterer and Leah Russo in several vital roles.
Lorna Hill's set, a trio of large monolithic towers, is suitably gray. "Everybody's Ruby," despite being a riveting racial history lesson and a seamy tale of sex, lies, adultery and violence, has a few gray areas of its own.
Rating: * * *
Ujima Theatre Company drama by Thulani Davis.
Directed by Ron O.J. Parson.
Through Oct. 27 in TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.