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The Scarlet & Black

Elephant’s Graveyard promises poignant performance

Photo by Sarah Ruiz
Photo by Sarah Ruiz

By Teresa Fleming

In 1916, the citizens of the small town of Erwin, Tennessee hung a circus elephant from an industrial crane until it was dead. This weekend’s production of “Elephant’s Graveyard” adapts this true story, situating it at the nexus of social, political and technological shifts that came together in an act of brutality. For director Sophiyaa Nayar ’17, the play felt like a particularly timely response to an era of surreal political turmoil.

“I read the play around the time of the election last year and so reading through it was really goofy and funny initially and I was having a good time. But as I was reading it … I started getting angrier and angrier and I couldn’t explain exactly why. I finished reading the play filled with rage,” Nayar said. “I couldn’t get words out, I just started crying and I couldn’t explain why something that happened a hundred years ago affected me so much compared to what was happening now. That’s what made me think that considering the time and the story, this play needs to be done here.”

Although the events portrayed onstage may appear surreal, the reality of lynching as a common practice in rural Tennessee lies beneath the play’s action. Even today, Nayar explained, people in Erwin resent their association with the elephant’s hanging, although the town has also been remembered for its lynchings of black men.

“It seems like people of Erwin really cared about the spectacle of hanging an elephant,” Nayar said. “What about the people they’ve been lynching for years? Why is this suddenly a spectacle?”

While “Elephant’s Graveyard” explores the nature of performance and spectacle, Nayar chose not to render some of the play’s key moments onstage, relying instead on the reactive context provided by the cast to portray the horror of the play’s central event.

“I was asked, are you going to build a giant elephant?’ And I was like, I could, but if the actors commit to seeing this hanging happen right in front of them, and their eyes go up at the same time and they look at it crash down at the same time, there is nothing more powerful than an audience’s imagination. Hanging an elephant would mean that a fake elephant dies. But leaving the gruesome bits of it to the audience I think is much more powerful,” Nayar said. “It’s fun not to control that.”

Community member interested in viewing the production may face some competition- productions through the weekend have sold out, but Nayar encourages interested parties to get on waitlists for the productions on Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Photo by Sarah Ruiz
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