Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
Resident Ensemble Players’s (REP) latest (and exceptionally fine) production, In the Heat of the Night, immediately immerses you in the charged atmosphere of a deep South summer. It’s 1962 and there’s been a murder in Argo, Alabama. As temperatures soar and tempers flare, the whole town is on edge. There’s only one cool customer, and his sang-froid ignites a firestorm of vitriol and racism.
This play—a chilling slice of mid-20th-century racism and hate—is also about the struggle between good and evil, the basis of all good detective tales. Set in a time rife with bigotry and the rise of the nascent civil rights movement, In the Heat of the Night is also a first-class whodunit.
Most people know this story from Norman Jewison’s 1967 neo-noir film (nominated for seven Oscars, winning five) or the TV series it engendered. But both were based on a best-selling novel by John Ball. Ball’s oeuvre is much larger, but nothing he wrote had the impact of this one, which won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel, and it’s from this 1965 book that playwright Matt Pelfrey adapted his 2010 theatrical version.
Enter Detective Tibbs
It features a cool-thinking, unflappable protagonist: a Black detective from California named Virgil Tibbs (Hassan El-Amin). Tibbs is quietly waiting for his train on the night a real-estate mogul is murdered. Chief Gillespie (Lee E. Ernst) is put on the political hotspot by Mayor Francine Schubert (Elizabeth Heflin) to quickly solve this crime assisted by the eager but inexperienced officer Sam Wood (Michael Gotch).
There are seemingly no witnesses, no motive, and few clues, so the experienced detective is seconded to work with the openly hostile sheriff’s office. Tibbs begins a methodical investigation that unravels the tangled strands of small-town relationships and falls afoul of the Ku Klux Klan. Questioning everyone from leading citizens to the local ne’er-do-well, assisted by Pete, Tibbs quickly becomes the racially tense community’s best hope in solving this puzzling murder.
Firing on all pistons
Director Cameron Knight (who’s worked with REP as an actor) doesn’t sidestep the racist insults, hatred, and violence that undergird this town and its denizens, embracing the directness of both author and playwright. This script doesn’t shy away from racial slurs and offensive epithets, presenting them in all their shocking frankness. But its penetrating exploration of a disturbing time is also a cautionary tale and a moral corrective, and Knight’s exemplary production bravely follows where the writers lead.
The director also sidesteps any tempting forays into polemics, focusing on telling this powerful story in a highly theatrical way. From the first moments, Knight shows a sure grasp of both the noir genre and the power of good storytelling to lead his audience where they must inevitably go. His production fires on all pistons and every directorial choice, both in guiding this company to first-rate performances and assembling a gifted design team, is solidly in service to this well-constructed play.
Taut script, superior design
The taut script gives the seasoned REP actors (and several guest performers) some juicy roles, and they create a community of fully realized characters. But the three leads are standouts: Ernst, whose character struggles mightily to accept someone he has been taught to revile; Gotch, whose character slowly learns the power of standing up for what is right; and El-Amin, who fully embodies Tibbs’s cool demeanor and the undaunted professionalism that weathers all assaults.
The REP actors’ work is elevated by superior design on every front. Technical aspects are not layered onto this production; in every way, they undergird and enhance Knight’s narrative arc. Costumes by Sarah Smith seem almost to drip in the wilting summer heat, all except for Tibbs’s tailored suit, conveying his ineffable poise. Dawn Chiang’s lighting design exudes so much heat you expect it to cross the footlights, along with exciting turns like police-car lights and a car chase flashing across the stage.
Lindsay Jones uses original music, period songs (including the blues), and riveting sound design to tellingly evoke the time and place. And the exceptional projection and video design of Patrick W. Lord takes the audience visually back to the 1960s with period footage, newspaper headlines, and backstory video montages projected onto pieces of scrim.
All this takes place on Britton Mauk’s masterful set, its pillars and balustrades evoking both the grandeur and the crumbling of the old South. The motorized center section moves back and forth as scenes come to the fore and retreat, and (for tech nerds) those vertically cut scrims are made of double-matte engineering film—semi-transparent PET plastic—a material that allows for both the front and rear-screen projections that ramp up the visual excitement.
Beacons of an odd dichotomy
The play is filled with a staggering racism that we would like to ignore or forget, and so seeing this production creates an odd dichotomy. It feels callous to so enjoy the excellent performances and superior production values of a play that documents the prejudice, vitriol, and violence of characters who behave reprehensibly. But there are beacons throughout, none more so than Mr. Tibbs, who like that other icon of the upright, Atticus Finch, follows his vocation to wherever it leads him.
In the Heat of the Night is a worthy reminder that however “once upon a time” we think this was, it was not that long ago or that far from us, and the play also profiles those with the courage to stand up for what is right. But make no mistake: it’s also a cracking good detective story.
Know before you go: this production includes gunshots, violence and images of historical violence, cursing, and racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic language.
What, When, Where
In the Heat of the Night. Adapted by Matt Pelfrey from the novel by John Ball, directed by Cameron Knight. $30-$39 with discounts available. Through November 19, 2023, at Thompson Theatre, Roselle Center for the Arts, 110 Orchard Road, Newark. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
The Roselle Center is an ADA-compliant venue equipped with a hearing loop system that works with hearing aid t-coils, cochlear implants, and in-house hearing devices. For wheelchair and seating requests, call (302) 831-2204 or email [email protected].
Masks are not required.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.