Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics. Bread lines and apple stands. The landslide reelection of President Franklin Roosevelt. Bing Crosby on the Kraft Music Hall. The abdication of King Edward VIII.
Those were some of the headline events of 1936. Some changed history; many defined an era. And all formed the backdrop of the trial of 18-year-old Bronx resident Elizabeth Smith, charged with murdering her newborn baby. That sensational, if largely forgotten, courtroom extravaganza sparks the action in The 1936 Project: The Trial of Elizabeth Smith, a multimedia production of BMCC’s Department of Speech, Communications and Theater Arts. It ran from November 17-20 at BMCC’s Theatre Studio.
Written by Professor Sherry Engle, the play was structured, staged and performed as a “Living Newspaper”—a dramatic genre that makes ample use of projected images and film, as well as period music, advertisements and radio broadcasts.
The 16 student actors in the cast not only portrayed characters and depicted scenes from the trial, they also provided narration, much of it drawn directly from political speeches and news coverage of the day.
Many of the actors portrayed multiple characters: BMCC student Katie Wright switched back and forth between an Irish woman who galvanizes the “free Elizabeth Smith” movement and a Salvation Army officer. In addition, some 35 students were responsible for lighting, sound, costuming, set building, make up and stage managing, as well as creating programs and slides for projections.
“The idea for the play came about through research I’d been doing on that period,” Engle says. “By accident, I came across news coverage of the trial and was struck by how much attention it drew in the media—and by the outpouring of sympathy and support for Elizabeth, especially by women.”
But Elizabeth “was not, in reality, a likable character,” says Amy Jacobsen, a second-year theater major who was cast in the title role. But she was drawn to the role “by Elizabeth’s vulnerability and sadness,” she adds. While she can’t say unequivovally whether she believed in Elizabeth’s innocence, “it was my hope to do her justice.”
A work in progress
The development of the play didn’t follow a conventional trajectory, says director Alkis Papoutsis, a professor in the Department of Speech, Communications and Theater Arts. “Usually, you get the script, read it, rehearse and perform."
"In this case, there was no script per se—we created it as we went along,” he says. Indeed, as Engle wrote the play, she gave it to Papoutsis and his actors in increments. “We read it, improvised, did our own reading about the era,” Papoutsis says. “As we did, we tried to come up with a cohesive presentation.”
While the play is rich in period detail, the stage sets are deliberately simple and spare. “Since we were working in the style of the living newspaper, we weren’t trying to create a realistic world,” says Professor Elizabeth Chaney, who designed the production. “We see the world of 1936 in the costumes, the projected images and, most importantly, the stories the actors tell.”
Adjunct professor Christopher Peifer, who teaches a practicum in audio production and oversaw the play’s sound design, adds that “the effort was student-motivated and student-researched. I think it was a revelation to many of the students that American popular culture was dominated in the 1930s by people like Cab Calloway, Fred Astaire and Billie Holiday.”
The more things change...
If The 1936 Project has a central theme, “it’s the cyclicality of history,” Engle says. “The things that happened in 1936 are still happening now: Underage girls still get pregnant, Americans are still enamored of British royalty, and war continues to rage.”
It’s a point that comes across through words, music and image—and the repeated refrains of the 1936 Tommy Dorsey hit tune, “The Music Goes Round and Round.”
“It’s remarkable,” says Engle, “how some things never change.”