Drama/ 13 Characters, 11 Men, 2 Women/ Full Length, Two Acts
Synopsis: Missouri, 1837. The circuit judge of Crawford County has summoned a grand jury to hear the case of Mary, a slave accused of beating and drowning her master’s two-year-old child. Phillip Cole, a transplanted Bostonian with a cold and calculating manner, has volunteered to defend the girl, over the objections of his bigoted partner, who is sure they don’t have a chance of winning. In Missouri, a slave is not even permitted to testify against a white man.
Cole is more optimistic. A trial, he says, is like a chess game; sometimes all you have to do is wait for your opponent to make a wrong move. His confidence is shaken when Mary refuses even to tell her side of the story. To add to his troubles, the foolish and incompetent circuit attorney is assigned to work with him. Stereger, the prosecuting attorney, seems willing to stoop to anything that will further his case, and Judge Evans is more concerned with having a speedy trial than a fair one.
With no witnesses for the defense, Cole relies on clever cross examining– what he calls “fishing.” He uncovers some damaging facts. First he learns that two days passed between the time the child died and the time the sheriff was summoned. Second, he finds that the child’s father was known to have beaten both Mary and the child.
Gradually the defense’s case grows stronger. Even Mary begins to display a little hope, and reveals the truth to Cole: She lost her temper and beat the child, then locked the little girl in the springhouse, where she drowned.
Afraid of losing, Stereger calls a new witness who testifies– falsely– that shortly before the murder he saw Mary beat the child and threaten to drown her. Frustrated, Cole asks the judge to let Mary speak on her own behalf. The request is denied. After only a few minutes’ deliberation, the jury finds Mary guilty. The judge sentences her to hang. Mary can forgive them, because she never expected any more from them. It’s Cole she can’t forgive. He gave her hope, and then it was snatched away again.
Cole promises to get her an appeal and a new trial, but she knows it’s no use. She holds no hope for an afterlife, either. “If they is one,” she says, “I ‘spect it’s just for white folks, too.”
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Amateur and professional rights:
Gary L. Blackwood
About the Playwright: Gary L. Blackwood’s first published novel, Wild Timothy (Atheneum), was a Weekly Reader Book Club selection and was translated into several languages. The Dying Sun (Atheneum) was voted Best YA Novel of 1989 by Friends of American Writers. Moonshine (Cavendish) was named a Notable Children’s Book of 1999 by Smithsonian Magazine. The Shakespeare Stealer (Dutton) was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a Scholastic Book Club selection, and one of School Library Journal’s Best Books. The American Library Association placed it on its lists of Notable Children’s Books and Best Books for Young Adults. The sequel, Shakespeare’s Scribe, is a Smithsonian Notable Book and an ALA Best Books for Young Adults.Mr. Blackwood’s stage plays have been produced in regional and university theatres. As winner of the 1993 Missouri Scriptworks, Dark Horse, a historical courtroom drama, was given a staged reading in St. Louis; the following year it won a playwriting competition at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre, where it was given a full production. His stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is published by Baker’s Plays, and an adaptation of The Shakespeare Stealerpremiered at The Kennedy Center in March, 2002.
Dark Horse was first produced by Ferndale Repertory Theatre, Ferndale, California in March, 1993.