Joe Morton and Sally Murphy
in Brutal Imagination
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Joe Morton and Sally Murphy
in Brutal Imagination
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
What happened in Union, South Carolina in 1994 was one of those shocking incidents that holds our attention for a week or a month and then fades into the cacophonous media roar. But Susan Smith's crime, tragic in all the classical implications of the word, deserves our full attention: A mother, betrayed by the capriciousness and cruelty of the world, murdered her own innocent children. Then, doubling the horror of the event, she went on television and told the world that a mysterious African-American carjacker had abducted her kids. A national uproar ensued until Smith's hoax was revealed in a tearful confession.

In 2000, Cornelius Eady turned this Southern Gothic tale into a dexterous cycle of poems called Brutal Imagination; now, he has collaborated with composer Diedre Murray (his partner on 1999's much-lauded jazz-opera Running Man), merging his text with her understated, moody music to craft a chilling, compact, and bruising theater piece about those sad days in Union. Performing Brutal Imagination under the direction of Diane Paulus at the Vineyard Theatre are Sally Murphy as Susan Smith and Joe Morton as "Mr. ZERO," a representation of the black man that Smith invented. Both performances are muscular and deeply intelligent, revealing level after level of intense reality beneath an entirely imaginary relationship.

Beyond the clever brainstorm of bringing Mr. ZERO to life, Eady finds interesting themes within the Smith story--concerning race, of course, but also about the gentle madness of motherhood, the need to love and be loved, the desire to see oneself in others. Then he finds themes within those themes, illuminating all of them with a sparkling, poetic wit. "She's filling in my blank with the absence of her boys," says Mr. ZERO, expressing the idea that Smith's fervent belief in her assailant was fueled by the desire to undo what she had done--to have her children back. At times, it must be said, there is an odd and uncomfortable disjunction between the abstracted style of the text and the straightforwardness of the performances, as if the actors were performing one play (or one type of play) while speaking another.

But the oddest thing about Brutal Imgaintion is that it is undeniably, though at times uncomfortably, funny. There is a rich vein of humor in Smith's pathos, her childish lie, and the inevitability of her guilt being discovered; Eady's text isn't afraid to let the imaginary black man revel in the ironies. Morton is expert in this facet of his role. He looks on with raised eyebrows, more bemused than angry, as Murphy's Smith gives her version of events to the sheriff or a family friend. Morton also gets to romp gleefully through a parade of black stereotypes, mocking Smith's act of creation with send-ups of earlier inventions like Uncle Tom, Buckwheat, and Stagger Lee.

But Mr. ZERO is angry, too, as well he should be. Morton's character reports the lament of an African-American woman, interviewed on the TV news during the investigation of the Smith children's disappearance: "It's been a hard week to be black in Union." We learn that black people in the town were well and truly ostracized during that long week; white folk shot deadly glances and locked their car doors when they came upon black pedestrians. The Smith case, like the O.J. Simpson case that would follow it, brought to the surface all the lingering resentment and stubborn nastiness of race relations in this country. With Brutal Imagination, Eady returns to the scene, looking closely with a poet's eye at one terrible incident in order to make sense of what it tells us about ourselves.

Eady's achievement is to conduct that investigation with an abundance of lyrical imagery and playful wit, but without the heavy polemics and awkward scolding that characterize too much contemporary writing, theatrical or otherwise, on race. Murray is smart enough to let her music (performed live by an off-stage quartet) highlight Eady's imagination rather than compete; the weaving viola and brooding piano chords are accompaniment, often quite lovely but never intrusive.