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When Race, Fear and a Horrific Act Intersect

Theater* Based on a mother who drowned her children and blamed an imaginary black man, 'Brutal Imagination' brings the phantom to life.


NEW YORK — He was the fictional creation of Susan Vaughan Smith, the white South Carolina woman who, in 1994, drowned her two small sons and blamed a phantom black man for the crimes.

For nine days, from the time she reported her children missing to her confession, Smith insisted that this elusive figure had kidnapped little Michael and Alexander, ages 3 and 14 months, respectively.

Now poet Cornelius Eady, with the help of director Diane Paulus and composer Diedre Murray, has brought the imaginary scapegoat to life in "Brutal Imagination," a 75-minute theatrical meditation on race and fear--and what one does to the other.

Their efforts, starring Sally Murphy as Smith and Joe Morton as Mr. Zero (the name given Smith's fictitious carjacker), are on view at off-Broadway's enterprising Vineyard Theatre. The theater is where such major works as Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" and Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" received their New York premieres, and where Paulus staged "Eli's Comin'," the hit Laura Nyro musical last season.

"Brutal Imagination" was originally a book of poems before Eady, who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize finalist "Running Man," decided to turn it into a piece for the stage.

"If she says that this imaginary guy is real, then let's go with that," said Eady, sipping coffee in the theater's lobby during a break in rehearsals and explaining how his interpretation of Smith's creation began. The poet said he began by putting together a character sketch.

"What would this man dress like? What would he say? How would he move through those nine days?" Eady explained. "I began playing with that notion. Where would he go? What would he do? And it immediately came to my mind that he was driving. All he is doing is driving and no one can find him. No one can see him--but everyone sees him. So he is constantly in motion."

Eady, who began working on the poems six years ago, deliberately did not visit Union, S.C., the scene of the crime. "When I was writing the poems, I felt I just needed to know the details of the case," he said. "I wasn't interested in the trial or the aftermath. I just thought about those nine days--from the time Mr. Zero is born until he evaporates after her confession."

The poet said Mr. Zero doesn't have a voice because he is always in Smith's head.

"That's part of the frustration we try to get across in the play," Eady said. "He is an invention. He can act as a kind of conscience, to some degree, for Susan and needle her, but he can't talk to the real world. So it's an odd marriage between the two of them.

"His job--or his duty--is to get her to tell the truth, but once he tells the truth, he's dead. On the other hand, he's immortal. He's always around. He's always available to do the dirty work for our subconscious."

"When called, I come. My job is to get things done," proclaims Mr. Zero in the play's opening moments. He is the unknown black intruder, created out of a fantasy of fear, a fear that white society accepted in Smith's case without much question.

Paulus, who worked with Eady on "Running Man," read the poems last year and immediately saw theatrical possibilities. "I was blown away," the director said. "They struck me as so excitingly dramatic because of the nature of the character who speaks through them. They are monologue driven by the voice of Mr. Zero. What we have been working on since then is how to further dramatize them."

It was Eady who decided that Smith too should be a character in the theater piece.

"We wanted to make it a duet between this white woman and this black man and how they come to terms with their complicated relationship," Paulus added. "Although Mr. Zero is a creation of Susan's mind, he doesn't always behave like she wants him to behave. He starts to rattle her mind--uncover parts of herself she didn't know about.

"Cornelius also had this wonderful idea of adding transcripts to frame each scene. They provide a little narrative glue to what was the actual event and how the community was receiving it."

"Writing poetry is a slower craft than writing a play," Eady said. "In theater, you have collaborators depending on you. You have to get it done. I hope when audiences come to hear this piece they are not hearing poetry, they are hearing dialogue. It's a theater piece with music right now."

"Brutal Imagination" tries to come to terms with what Smith actually did.

"It's hard to wrap your mind around how everyone was duped by Susan Smith and how could she lie like that," Paulus said. "What is she using to enable her to carry the lie? What was her eventual breakdown? What happened in those nine days that made her confess? In our fantasy, it is Mr. Zero."

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