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Scapegoat is a complex work that explores racism both past and present

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With only four actors and a compact set, Scapegoat, a play by Christina M. Ham now being given its world premiere by Pillsbury House Theatre, is small in scale but vast in ambition. Ham sets out to examine the notion that we've a achieved a "post-racial society" by visiting both the present and the past, the latter by dramatizing the circumstances surrounding a 1919 race riot that proved to have pivotal consequences for Civil Rights legislation.

Pillsbury House Theatre
$25; pay-as-able

Ham has essentially written two one-act plays that share a geographic location — Elaine, Arkansas — and the same cast, one act set in 1919 and the other in the present. The first act opens as black sharecroppers Virgil (James A. Williams) and Effie (Regina Marie Williams) lose their adult son to murderous white neighbors led by Uly (Dan Hopman), who's been consigned with his wife, Ora (Jennifer Blagen), to a near-barren patch of land. The dead son, it emerges, had been giving Ora food; Uly chose to believe their relationship was more intimate.

In the second act, two affluent interracial couples on a road trip from New York make a quick overnight stop in Elaine, where the town's history sparks probing discussions about their marriages, parenting, and friendships. Paula (Regina Marie Williams) and Russell (Hopman) have decided not to discuss race with their children; Greg (James A. Williams) is more forthright about 21st-century racism, but at the same time less inclined to revisit America's history of racially motivated violence. His wife (Blagen) is troubled by that history, but not too troubled to refrain from suggesting a group selfie in front of a sharecroppers' shack.

This all unfolds lucidly in a production directed by Marion McClinton, but it's a dense play: thick with plot, with historical information, and with truths that emerge between the lines. No running time is wasted — nor can it be. The first act alone, for example, needs to both explain the circumstances of the young man's offstage death and describe the incipient formation of a farmers' union, in addition to establishing four major characters.

This leads to scenes that are chockablock with exposition, often at the expense of character development. When Effie and Virgil, for example, pivot with surprising quickness from watching their son's murder to arguing over Virgil's unionizing activities, you wish we'd been given more time to sit with this couple as they simply mourn. Ham's resonant metaphors and pithy turns of phrase also sit more easily on the lips of the Ivy-educated characters in Act Two than on those of the hardscrabble farmers in Act One.

Regina Marie Williams tears through those challenges, though, with her fierce performance as Effie, a character on a high-wire, fighting to protect her husband and her pride as she processes one of the most profound shocks imaginable. The second act, conversely, belongs to James A. Williams as Greg, a swaggering attorney whose pragmatic approach to tackling racism leaves him impatient with the sometimes contradictory idealism of Russell and Paula.

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At both ends of the Scapegoat time span, Ham works to realistically complicate her characters' circumstances. Uly is a character whose analogues today are easy to find: an impoverished white man who turns on his black neighbors as a hatefully misguided reaction to his own marginalization. The characters in the second act, on the other hand, acknowledge to themselves that they're entering new territory: free to marry who they love, but not free to ignore the realities of race in America. How to grapple with those realities is a challenge that they — and we — face every day.