Rampant racism In the Heat of the Night

Director says play’s issues not confined to yesteryear

Kate Newby says In the Heat of the Night a play she is directing as Vertigo Theatre’s season opener takes her back to her early years growing up in small-town Canada. Matt Pelfrey’s theatrical adaptation is based on John Ball’s 1965 novel and the Academy Award-winning film starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

The action is set in a small town in the southern United States where racist feelings run rampant.

“The town where I grew up was fairly racist when it came to the aboriginal community and the residential school on the edge of town. It was disturbing to me as a young person growing up. It ( In the Heat of the Night ) brought back feelings of what it was like to be the guilty party growing up white and privileged. All my friends were First Nations kids until we hit Grade 1 and were segregated” she says.

Newby says despite what we may want to believe in Canada racism is not an issue confined to south of the border and it is not an attitude confined to yesteryear. She points to a recent incident in Calgary in which tenants of a Nigerian-born man trashed his rental property and left racial slurs scrawled on the walls.

“There are still issues of fear of the other. We have it right here in Calgary” Newby says.

“I think we can stay in denial as long as we want. Things always change on paper a lot faster than in life. It doesn’t mean attitudes change.”

In the Heat of the Night is set in 1962 a year after the Freedom Riders rode interstate buses into the southern United States in mixed racial groups defying local laws that demanded segregated seating on public transport. Mob violence and arrests followed.

“It was a tense time. The fear of blacks by the whites was really really high…. They were worried that black people were going to take over rape their women. There was a fear that white people would be killed. It was an incredibly irrational fear that comes down to hatred” Newby says describing the play’s backdrop.

Pelfrey’s In the Heat of the Night opens with a man’s murder in Argo Alabama. Chief Gillespie (Kevin Rothery) of the local police jumps to the incorrect conclusion that the murderer must be the black stranger Virgil Tibbs (Daren A. Herbert) he picks up at the train station. The tables turn on Gillespie when he ends up having to work with Tibbs to solve the murder.

Despite its overarching themes of race relations Newby says In the Heat of the Night is at its heart a detective story. However she adds the play is a little edgier than Vertigo audiences may be used to and she could feel audience members squirming in their seats while witnessing Gillespie’s initial treatment of Tibbs. The production comes with an audience advisory that it “contains strong language and racial slurs authentic to the southern United States in 1962.”

Newby says it’s no easy task for her cast — 10 actors whom she describes as “wonderful gentle human beings” — to adopt the racist attitudes and actions of some of the play’s characters. To help prepare them for the job ahead Newby had them watch a couple of “graphic challenging” documentaries one about the Freedom Riders and another that dealt with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till a 14-year-old black boy whose only crime was to flirt with a white woman.

Newby says the films sparked a lot of discomfort and heated discussion about race. “I wanted the primarily white cast to get thinking about the negativity and the truth about playing a racist” she says.

“All of the actors have been really really challenged to go as far as they can with it but they are rising to the challenge. Each day I see more depth more truth more ugliness.”

In the Heat of the Night runs until October 13 at Vertigo Theatre.