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The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial

Martha Karam | Thursday, February 5, 2009

Witness both journalists and monkeys in court this weekend at LA Theatre Works: “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trail,” where “If evolution wins, Christianity goes.”

Based directly on transcripts of “Tennessee vs. John Scopes,” “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trail” will be showing Friday through Sunday at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as part of the Visiting Artists series.

Started in 1974, LA Theatre Works’ goal is to “enrich the cultural life of our national community.” Even though an eight-day long case from the 1920s may seem uninteresting to a college student, LA Theatre Works makes it their goal to entice an interest in theatre within people throughout the country.

Funded by Californian businesses and various alliances of art since 1984, LA Theatre Works has also worked in Los Angeles with students at County Juvenile Court Schools, after-school programs, and public schools to give at-risk children a creative, productive outlet.

The play’s historical background is accurate and succinct. The eight-day trail in a sweltering courtroom has its most enthralling moments of the entire case condensed into a single play.

The play stars Emmy Award-winning Ed Asner (Santa in “Elf,” best known for his turn as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and its spinoff, “Lou Grant”) and John Heard (“Home Alone,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “CSI: Miami”). Asner plays William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor and former United States Secretary of State, and Heard plays the defendant’s representative, Clarence Darrow.

In 1925, the Butler Act passed in Tennessee legislature, which stated “it shall be unlawful for any teacher in the public schools of the state to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”

After the passage of this act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) persuaded a local General Science teacher, John Scopes, to teach information based on Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”

Ultimately, Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of $100. “Time Magazine” depicted the trial as “the fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war.” Though the buzz of controversy about evolution is almost extinct in our generation, “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trail” suggests topics that were new to America in the 1920s but are still applicable to our generation.

The play is not just about a court case, it is about the loosening of morals of youth in the 1920s and the resistance of the previous generation to adapt to new ideas after the First World War. The crazed exaggerations of the over 200 journalists at the trial, the exploiting and mocking of biological ideas, and antiquated practices of propaganda and yellow journalism can entertain an audience of any generation.

The journalistic twists of the backwards “hillbillies” of Tennessee exposes a conflict of ideas between Fundamentalism and Modernism in the 1920’s. “The Great Monkey Trail” personifies this same conflict through Bryan and Darrow’s characters and the people caught in the schism of ideas through Scope himself.

At the Friday and Saturday performances, Anthropology professor Agustin Fuentes is giving a “pre-performance” discussion one hour before curtain at 6 p.m.

Even if you are not interested in controversy, the 1920s, or respectable acting, this play will enthrall the entire audience with the reenacted chaos of that scorching summer courtroom 80 years ago. Tickets are available online or at the performance.