In late October 1994, OG “Karen” Susan L. Smith of Union, South Carolina called the police to report that an African American man had highjacked her car with her two young sons still strapped into the back seat. Nine days later she was arrested for the boys’ murder. Brutal Imagination is writer/poet Cornelius Eady exploration of the ease with which Smith constructed her lie. Originally presented at the Vineyard Theatre at the end of 2001, it was nominated for the Lucille Lortel for the engulfing sound design and Eady was awarded an Oppenheimer for the script. The piece has now been reimagined as a fundraiser for this supportive Off-Broadway incubator of dauntless voices. Viewed through the shattering prism of recent events, the continued criminalization of Black men’s everyday actions, and the persistence of the rageful boogieman mythology, the work is as powerful as ever.
Though it is billed as a staged reading, this recreation by Joe Morton is more of a full-fledged film, complete with powerful special effects and a blood pumping score. Fresh off her well-received role of Jane Apple in the Zoom-perfect Apple Family Plays, Sally Murphy revives her performance as the increasingly antsy Smith. More tortured by her deception than the death of her children, Murphy is often shown caught in a frame constructed by turns from her bookshelves, her rearview mirror, and her television antenna. But this is Morton’s show wherein he embodies Smith’s self-aware creation Mr. Zero. At times he chuckles at his own inconsistencies, her shocking stereotyping, and above all the improbability of his very existence. At others, his anger and those of thousands of others is channeled into brilliant condemnation of a society so deeply seeped in racism that Smith’s flimsy fabrication persisted for days.
Obie Award-winning video designer Jared Mezzocchi has brought Morton’s bold images to life, vividly blending them the way they would be entangled in someone’s mind. This technique gives the piece tremendous movement even on a small screen. Several racist touchstones are incorporated including the brilliant Buckwheat’s Lament. The one flaw in the presentation stems from the sound mixing in which the score often obscures Murphy’s dialogue. Closed captioning is unfortunately not available.
Throughout the viewing of Brutal Imagination, it is hard not to feel weight of how little we have moved as a culture since the time of Smith’s saga. Yet the poetry of the language and the wisdom of Mr. Zero’s observations shine through the darkness. “We hope this play will be part of discussions about how we imagine or try to imagine what a future, a multicultural future, looks like,” says Cornelius Eady. “That to me is the heart of the struggle. This is part of the push that is going on. And the arts are part of this push… you have to imagine it before you can walk into it.” This engaging play is available to stream On Demand through 11:59PM on June 7. Runtime is 90 minutes and playback can be paused. Tickets begin at $27.50 and are available on https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/brutal-imagination-2/. Proceeds support the artists and programs in The Vineyard’s 2020-2021 Season.