‘In the Heat of the Night’ Pulls No Punches
Tonight L.A. Theatre Works' radio play version of the classic 'In the Heat of the Night' came to the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, and the company delivered a powerful performance that pulled no punches when it came to prejudice and racial discrimination.
Unlike the 1967 Academy Award-winning film starring Sidney Poitier or the television show that featured Carroll O'Connor (1988-1995), this brand-new adaptation of John Ball's 1965 novel is presented like an old time radio show, complete with sound effects and actors standing at microphones.
Despite the unconventional format, the audience gets lost in the story about a black homicide detective named Virgil Tibbs from Los Angeles who gets wrongly accused of a murder in Argo, Ala. only to be detained to help solve the case.
The script is fraught with dark humor, and more than one scene of raw, intense animosity as Mr. Tibbs must face various residents of the all-white town which is run by a corrupt mayor, a bigoted police department, and plenty of members of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the performance, the white characters who work alongside Mr. Tibbs struggle with their preconceived ideas of what role a black man has in society, because Tibbs breaks every stereotype.
Michael Hammond plays police officer Sam Wood, and for a young man from Maryland, one would never guess that Hammond didn't grow up in the deep South. His character was conflicted and honest, liking Tibbs but hesitant to be an outcast among his own people. Hammond deftly walked this precarious line, bringing an earnestness to the role, while simultaneously doling out measures of serious curiosity and charm.
James Morrison, who many will remember as Bill Buchanan in FOX's 24, played Chief Gillespie brilliantly. As we watch his character evolve from blatant racist to someone who offers reluctant respect to Mr. Tibbs by the play's end, Morrison completely disappeared into his role and offered a performance that ran the gamut emotionally. In a scene where Gillespie must accept Tibbs' help despite his initial protests, Morrison utilized the character as a tool to make us both question our own biases and elicit our empathy. Frequently, this is an uncomfortable ride to be on, and yet the audience willingly accompanies Morrison on this journey, because he makes us live the moment with him, and we never quite remember why we would want to get off.
Throughout the play, each member of the cast came to the Zeiterion stage with serious acting chops, and left an indelible impression on the audience. Still, it was Ryan Vincent Anderson who stole the show in his amazing turn as Virgil Tibbs. Anderson would have made Sidney Poitier proud as he introduced us to his character with practiced patience, nimbly repressing pent-up rage during his false arrest. For as Tibbs says in the show, it isn't the first time it has happened.
But that seems to be the message of this play for modern audiences. This isn't the first time Americans are facing racial discrimination, and yet at its heart the dilemma is just as absurd today as it was 50 years ago when this story was first published. Even after all this time, In the Heat of the Night is still relevant, still powerful, and it still reminds us just how similar we all are.