At Benchmark Theatre, a novel take on our color-crossed society

Now here’s an interesting concept for a play inspired by Black Lives Matter: Take a Black man and put him in what’s essentially a cage and have him examined and exhibited by a White doctor as if he were some peculiar specimen of humanity — like, say, The Elephant Man.

If it sounds uncomfortable to watch, it most certainly is. But much as Victorian-Age audiences puzzled over John Merrick’s deformities as he was displayed as a circus freak, so, too, do the characters in Elephant struggle to understand this composite Black man — also named John Merrick.

A local play premiering at Lakewood’s Benchmark Theatre, Elephant has only three characters. Merrick is played by Nnamdi K. Nwankwo, who has arrived at a hospital after an altercation with police that left him with a number of wounds. We see him alone, hunched over on a stool at the top of the show after several white sheets bordering the set drop down at once — the type of reveal that might be employed for maximum shock to a freak-show audience.

Dan O’Neill plays the doctor, Frederick Treves — a name also borrowed from the original Merrick story (although “Dr. Whitey Whitington” would also have worked). He is first seen having a press conference, with (pre-recorded) reporters snapping photos and peppering him with questions about this unusual (dangerous?) Black person who’s washed up on their shores.

It’s not clear whether we’re in the 1870s of The Elephant Man or modern day. Merrick is in jeans and a hoodie, while Treves sports an old-fashioned three-piece woolen suit. When the third character arrives, she’s similarly dressed in period clothing — looking like someone out of an Edith Wharton novel.

This is Madge Kendal (Courtney Esser), a wealthy and famous actor who hears of Merrick’s case and eventually donates enough to create “The Madge Kendal Wing of African American Studies” (or something like that) at Treves’ hospital. According to Wikipedia, the real Kendal was sympathetic to Merrick’s cause but likely never met him in person. In Elephant, she comes to visit him regularly. She, more than Treves, is able to see Merrick as a normal human being, but is never able to allow the scales of privilege to fall from her eyes enough to see the racist rot at the core of her world.

Both Kendal and Treves are played as hopeless caricatures, composites of the White race who’ve suppressed Blacks with either violence and malevolence or cluelessness and ambivalence. Merrick is the sober, put-upon victim of their foolishness, eye-rolling his way through the 90-minute show while choosing to remain put in the small room in the hospital where he’s been living.

Whites might find this juxtaposition unfair, with “their side” represented by these two ninnies while Merrick looks down on them from the moral and intellectual high ground. Indeed, it crossed my mind many times that this sort of characterization is exactly the kind of thing that infuriates many of our right-leaning friends. To them I would say, well, it’s kinda true for many of us, isn’t it? And maybe, just maybe, turning the tables even just a few degrees is a necessary correction.

Of course, there wouldn’t be much dramatic tension if Kendal and Treves were sympathetically quoting Ta-Nehesi Coates and confronting the press scrum holding BLM signs.

Nwankwo with Dan O'Neill
Nwankwo with Dan O’Neill | Photo: McLeod9 Creative

Elephant doesn’t reveal to us anything we don’t already know or suspect, but it does a good job driving home the point that passive racism can be just as bad as the overt variety. Treves may carry a gun in his pocket whenever he’s around Merrick — “just in case” — but Kendal ultimately doesn’t do him much good, either, with her inability to ever move past his blackness and see him for the intelligent, decent and sympathetic character he is.

I enjoyed all three of these performances. Nwankwo is a big presence with a powerful voice that fills the room. Even acting, it can’t be easy for a Black man to endure Treves’ insults — particularly in the opening scenes. Rather than repeatedly taking offense, Nwankwo plays Merrick like a teenager trying to explain TikTok to his grandma. Aghast, for sure, but determined to cut through the racism to show the simple truth that he’s just another guy making his way through the world.

O’Neill — god bless him for having to say all those terrible lines to Nwankwo — is the ideal Treves, able to combine didactic dickishness with childlike naiveté and smoldering resentment of Merrick as “the other.”

Esser has a grand old time with Kendal, playing her broadly as a type — the privileged socialite having some fun mingling with the riff-raff (and that includes Treves). She’s Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island at first, but then she begins revealing a darker side to her presumed philanthropy, culminating in the realization that it was all about her to begin with.

The production has some neat touches, most notably in the sound design (Marc Stith). From the mesmerizing pre-show screeching gulls piece to the press scrum questions coming from different areas to some industrial stings that accompany some of the scenes, Stith adds an intriguing layer to the action.

All told, it’s a strong return to live performance by Benchmark, a daring little theatre that’s almost always got something interesting to show in their tiny space located in Lakewood’s 40 West Arts District.