note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
The small, dark, Black Box theater in Salem is ghostly quiet, save the historic strains of musicians Vince O’Donnell of Newton and Bill Smith of Salem, seated onstage in the lefthand corner. Three black, white and gray slender, symbolic banners hang overhead --- prophetic pronouncements of things to come. And they come quickly, in the form of internationally renowned storyteller, Judith Black.
Dressed in a simple, sleeveless white dress, Black deftly unleashes a barrage of real and fictitious colonial characters, starting in 1689, when a ship comes to Marblehead bearing its kindly captain, a passenger named Mrs. Symm, who looks like “a giant jellyfish,” and Martha Lawrence, a 13-year-old shy female orphan.
Without changing a hair, Black swiftly morphs into wizened old storyteller Mary Gatchell (up on Old Burial Hill in Marblehead); into the ship’s blustery captain, then into elderly, kindly, eccentric widow Wilmot “Mammy” Redd (who sings to her dead children daily, while tending their graves) then into sweetly shy Martha, whom Mammy takes in and raises as her own.
Dark forces are forming in nearby Salem Village though, and even closer to home.
Young widow Charity Pitman, a devout Christian, becomes swept up in the neighboring witchcraft hysteria and maneuvers to get Mammy accused and executed as a witch in 1692. Hidden on the dark side of Charity’s accusations is her jealousy of young Martha, who has captured the heart of Mrs. Symms’ handsome, blond nephew, fisherman Caleb Matthew Symms. With nary a pause, Black changes entire persona, switching her stance from left to right, conversing between characters.
Further defining her historic characters and tone, Black sings Betsy Rose’s simple ditties a cappella or accompanied by O’Donnell’s fiddle and Smith’s banjo. “In Salem, they worship God; in Marblehead, it’s rum and cod,” she chants.
Like her speaking voice, facial and physical gestures, Black’s vocal range is uncanny, from soprano to baritone. She sprightly springs about as young Martha; strides proudly as Capt. Keeves; is priggishly proper as Charity; bent and palsied as Mammy; blustery and raspy as Mary Gatchell; and adolescently virile as Caleb.
Throughout her performance, Black interacts with the audience, making eye and verbal contact, riveting everyone’s attention to the stage.
Black has taken great pains to ensure the story’s accuracy, but created two fictitious male characters --- Caleb and Capt. Keeves --- to intensify her tale. She began working on the story 20 years ago, researching at the Essex Institute. She then verified information with the Marblehead Historical Association and the town’s respected historian, Bette Hunt. Witchcraft trial accusatory voiceovers during the performance hail from original trial transcripts.
Besides educating and entertaining theatergoers, Black has breathed life and compelling insight into people who are merely an epitaph in town cemeteries and dusty records.
In the second act, wearing contemporary clothing, Black presents three modern snippets into women’s lives, titled, “The Present- Compulsions”. The first story, “Hungry,” highlights two women --- self-conscious and compulsive overeater Esther and compulsive anorexic, seemingly perfect Catherine --- and their unlikely relationship. The second story focuses on a Beverly Farms matron who hires two handsome window washers and enjoys watching them work.
However, in “Goodbye, Mom,” Black waxes personally reflective, relating her relationship with her mother who “worshipped at the altar of ladies’ magazines”. She says she was her mother’s imperfect child; discusses her parents’ move to “God’s waiting room” (Florida); their deaths three years ago ; and the effect of her mom’s death on her. The enthusiastic audience delivered a hearty standing ovation.
Do yourself a favor. Avoid the Salem witchcraft hoopla and head to Salem Theatre. Believe me, you’ll kvetch and qvell with Black.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour, one woman show, written and performed by Judith Black, directed by John Fogle. Appearing through October 16 at the Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Admission is $22; seniors, $18; students, $12. Call 978-790-8546, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, visit the Box Office or www.salemtheatre.com/tickets.