S.A.L.T.’s rendition of ‘Elephant’s Graveyard’ gruesome, but moving

Mark Robinson
Assistant Spectrum Editor

In September 1916, this photograph was taken of the only documented elephant lynching in American history. Mary, a five-ton Asian elephant, was hung from an industrial crane in a railyard in Erwin, Tenn. Image courtesy of blueridgecounty.com.

The Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre hosted four free performances of “Elephant’s Graveyard” in the Newdick Theatre at the Shafer Street Playhouse this past weekend.

Written by George Brant in 2008, “Elephant’s Graveyard” tells the story of the only recorded elephant lynching from the perspective of traveling circus members and townspeople of Erwin, Tenn., where it happened in the early 20th century.

Mary, a five-ton Asian elephant and performer for the Sparks World Famous Shows circus, was hanged after an incident during a parade that left a circus hand dead.

The details of both the incident and the public execution are unclear, but it is said that Mary was first shot multiple times, but was unmolested by the bullets.

Sparks World Famous Shows ringmaster Charlie Sparks then decided to put the elephant to death in public to satisfy the angry townspeople. She was led to a railroad yard, chained to the tracks and strung up to an industrial crane.

The initial attempt to hang Mary went horribly awry though, when in their haste, the executioners did not remember to unchain her from the tracks before the crane started to lift her. The first attempt ultimately failed when the chain around her neck snapped, causing her to fall and break her hip.

The second attempt, though, proved successful, and Mary was buried beside the railroad tracks where more than 2,000 residents of Erwin watched the execution in their Sunday’s best.

The authenticity of a single photograph that captured Mary suspended from an industrial crane has been challenged in the years since the lynching.

“It’s a very, very moving piece,” said Lauren Davis, a sophomore theater major who portrayed the provocative ballet girl in the circus in “Elephant’s Graveyard.”

“The beauty of (the play) is that it’s an ensemble piece, and it’s done all through monologues, so you never see anything, you only hear people talk, but still people have been almost as upset as if they had actually witnessed it,” she said.

Davis’s sentiment is echoed by director Josh Chenard, Theatre VCU’s head of performance. Chenard admits the first time he read the script he asked himself, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ He hopes people can look past the play’s gruesome subject matter and see the show’s message.

“If people walk out and say, ‘I’m disturbed, but I’m moved,’ and they’re able to think and perceive and feel about what they saw, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

Chenard, who has been directing for more than 15 years, said this is one of the most diverse casts he’s worked with in terms of experience.

Although Brant’s script challenged the cast’s ability to emulate a community, Chenard believes the extra effort he and the cast put in during rehearsal is evident in the performance.

“For some reason, this show has sort of taken on a life of its own,” Chenard said. “I completely trust (the cast). They’ve taken the show from me and made it better, made it their own. It has been a fantastic experience for me.”

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