If you go
› What: “Dead Innocent: The Ed Johnson Story”
› Where: Chattanooga State Community College, Humanities Building, 4501 Amnicola Highway
› When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 18-19; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 20
› Admission: $15 adults, $10 students and senior adults
› For more information: www.chattanoogastate.edu/humanities-fine-arts/theatre-arts
A sordid event in Chattanooga history is the focus of the play opening Friday, May 18, at Chattanooga State Community College, with the goal of learning from the past to improve the future.
"Dead Innocent: The Ed Johnson Story" tells the events leading up to and following the mob lynching of Ed Johnson in 1906 on the Walnut Street Bridge.
Johnson, who was black, was wrongly accused of raping a white woman, convicted in court despite a lack of credible evidence and sentenced to death. Two black attorneys, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchens, took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court granted a stay of execution, an angry mob stormed the jail and lynched Johnson.
The two-act play was written by LaFrederick Thirkill, who directed its debut a decade ago. For this production, Sherry Landrum, artistic director of theater programs at Chattanooga State, is directing.
"I feel very honored (Thirkill) is letting me work on this show. He really knows this story, has studied it. He's the one who brought Ed Johnson back to public knowledge in Chattanooga. The play is very historical in the way he has written it. A lot of the dialogue, especially in the court scenes, is taken directly from the trial. He's done a nice job of making this theatrical so that it is very human and a good story to watch," she says.
Thirkill's play is based on newspaper articles, court transcripts and the book "Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism" by Leroy Phillips and Mark Curriden.
The 15-member cast includes Chattanooga State students, graduates and community actors. Damon Buxton has been cast in the title role of Johnson; Rachel Goldsmith plays the female accuser.
Landrum found in auditions that millennials were not that familiar with Johnson's story, "but once they got into it, they are really learning a lot.
"Damon Buxton is really having to get involved psychologically in what that young man was going through, the fact that Johnson was an uneducated man who signed his name with an X. Yet, he was quite articulate in his way and quite philosophical," she says.
Landrum notes that Johnson's story is important for the "legal firsts" the trial produced. Johnson was the first African- American to be awarded a stay of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court. After the lynching, the Court found Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph Shipp and five co-defendants guilty of contempt of court for not enforcing the stay and sentenced them to prison terms. U.S. vs. Shipp set a precedent for federal oversight of local civil-rights issues, according to information from the Ed Johnson Project.
"I think at the end of the play, the audience will come away thinking, 'We really need to remember this,'" says Landrum. "LaFrederick does a really good job of putting this together."
Landrum adds that all ticket proceeds will be presented to the Ed Johnson Memorial Scholarship Fund, which is awarded a black student wanting to go into law or criminal justice.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.