Scopes Trial Re-Enacted in Courtroom Where It All Went Down

William Jennings Bryan, played by George Miller, delivers an argument for the prosecution in a production of “Front Page News” held in the Rhea County Courthouse. (Daniel Jackson/CNS)

DAYTON, Tenn. (CN) – Every year, the cast reenacting the Scopes Trial puts the drama in courtroom drama.

The production blacked out the windows in the main courtroom of the Rhea County Courthouse. Stage lighting and speakers stood around the room as actors in straw hats and suspenders huddled in a makeshift backstage Thursday evening. The final dress rehearsal began with guitar picking and a song.

This courthouse, where every step seems like it’s on a creaking board, was the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial 94 years ago. And around its anniversary, the town of Dayton, as part of its Scopes Festival, reenacts the courtroom proceedings that cemented the town sitting between the Cumberland Plateau and the Tennessee River into the pages of history.

On July 21, 1925, a jury swiftly found John Scopes guilty of breaking a newly passed Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools. The test case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union pitted famed attorney Clarence Darrow defending Scopes against three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who served as a celebrity prosecutor.

The case – which raised issues regarding education, the role of faith in the public square and of course creationism versus evolution – is one of the most notable court cases in American history.

John Scopes, played by Joseph Mann, listens to Clarence Darrow, played by Rick Dye, as he talks out a legal strategy. (Daniel Jackson/CNS)

But when the space is not used by actors to re-litigate the guilt of Scopes and the constitutionality of Tennessee’s long-abolished law, it is still very much an active courtroom.

Last month, the state successfully prosecuted a murder in the room whose large gallery consists of stadium-like seating. On other days, individuals with disputes over debts and renting arrangements step past the bar surrounding the bench on three sides to argue their cases before a general sessions judge.

For the organizers, the actors and the playwright, the production of the play, “Front Page News,” is a way to combat the perception of the trial left by the play and movie “Inherit the Wind” and present what they say is a more balanced account of the trial.

Ever since Dayton first reenacted the trial, the production sought to balance keeping true to the transcript of a multi-day trial and appealing to a modern audience by keeping it entertaining.

“I’d say we’re in the realm of a docu-drama now, rather than a documentary,” said Tom Davis, chairman of the Scopes Festival. “We can still defend everything that’s in there from a historical perspective but we’ve changed things around a little bit to up the storytelling aspect of it.”

The trial still matters, even after almost a century, because of the issues it touched on beyond the creation-evolution issue, Davis said.

“You’ll hear the lawyers and witnesses talk about things like, ‘Who should run the schools? What role should parents play in all of these things? What rights do students have to hear more than one viewpoint?’ There’s a lot of stuff that they talked about in 1925, none of which has been resolved,” Davis said.

The core of the cast comes from Dayton and the surrounding area.

Rick Dye, who plays Darrow this year, first got involved playing the radio announcer in an earlier production – a notable role because the Scopes Trial was the first trial broadcast through that medium.

“There were a lot of people that were still alive when I started doing this 25-26 years ago,” Dye said, including Dayton residents who sat in the gallery during the trial and one of the students who testified at the trial against Scopes.

When he’s not reading books about the trial and studying old video footage of Darrow to hone his role, he works in sales.

William Jennings Bryan, played by George Miller, speaks to a crowd during a scene in “Front Page News,” which retells the events surrounding the Scopes Monkey Trial. (Daniel Jackson/CNS)

It was about eight years ago when George Miller saw an advertisement in the local paper announcing the start of a new production of a Scopes Trial play and he decided to apply.

He’s played Bryan ever since.

“My idea at the time was that the Scopes Trial and ‘Inherit the Wind’ were the same thing, like most Americans,” Miller said.

About eight years ago, the production wanted a new approach to telling the story of the trial and Davis approached playwright Deborah Harbin. To write “Front Page News,” Harbin took a machete to the transcript from the multi-day trial, condensing it down and creating scenes to add context. The end result was a play with a runtime of about two hours.

“Inherit the Wind,” she said, is a play more about McCarthyism and many viewers develop a “really specific impression” of the Scopes Trial and the residents of Dayton.

“Ideologically, I’m probably closer to Clarence Darrow than to William Jennings Bryan,” said the New Hampshire playwright. “But at the same time, having lived in the South, I have a sense of the way that people outside of the South sneer at the South without really understanding it.”

A few years later, the production tweaked Harbin’s play, adding music. It’s a good addition, she said, because it adds dramatization and sometimes carries the play along.

For Harbin, the benefit of revisiting the Scopes Trial through theater is the immediacy of the event that makes the audience almost witnesses of the court proceedings.

“For me, the result of that is that the audience gets to be, gets to have an experience of almost being participant in their own history, in our own national history,” Harbin said.

The play’s director Alexis Landry, who also teaches theater at nearby Bryan College, didn’t know much about the Scopes Trial before starting out as the production’s stage manager four years ago, even though she attended Bryan College, the Christian liberal arts college started in the town in honor of Bryan after he died in town days after the trial.

The college didn’t talk much about the trial, she said.

While she was in graduate school, her former professor recommended her for the job of stage manager. She took over the directing job last year just three weeks before opening night.

Clarence Darrow, played by Rick Dye, questions William Jennings Bryan, played by George Miller, after calling him up as a witness. (Daniel Jackson/CNS)

This year, she made some changes, including expanding the blocking and utilizing more of the courtroom.

“I wanted to try to make the courtroom feel more like a performance space and less like just a courtroom,” Landry said.

After studying pictures of the trial and learning that the jury sat just past the bar in the center of the room, Landry changed the blocking of the play to seat the jury in the front row of the audience to approximate where it sat and to give her cast more space.

The space itself is a challenge. A big-voiced person can easily cast their voice to all four corners of the room.

As the play ended, guests clapped and some stood. A few minutes later, the cast gathered in the first few rows of the gallery as Landry, sitting behind the bar and holding a yellow pad of paper, gave feedback.

Some actors may have to shout their lines, she said.

Already there are plans for the centennial celebration, six years away.

Landry is hoping, time willing, to look at the trial again, to write her own play about the trial. Every few years, the production reexamines the play to see how they could change their telling of it. Landry already has a few ideas.

When it comes to putting on a play that wrestles with evolution and creationism, it turns out it takes a little bit of both.

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