Scopes radio play mirrors drama in court

Friday, October 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:29 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jesse Auditorium will be transformed into a Tennessee courtroom next week to re-enact what many believe to be the trial of the century.

L.A. Theatre Works, a company that produces live audio theater, is bringing its docudrama, written by playwright and award-winning producer Peter Goodchild, to Columbia on Sunday and Tuesday as a part of the University Concert Series.

The radio play is based on the original radio transcripts of the famous 1925 Scopes trial which debated the teaching of evolution in schools. The trial, which was the first to be broadcast on radio, spotlighted the age-old conflict between science and religion. It contemplated the question of how we came to be here: Was it natural evolutionary process or was it creationism as told by the Bible?

With the exception of some narration, the play’s dialogue is based on the actual words spoken by those involved in the trial, which included attorneys William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, who argued for defendant John Scopes, a Dayton, Tenn., biology teacher who was found guilty of violating a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. He was fined $100, though the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the verdict on a technicality.

Susan Loewenberg, producing director of L.A. Theatre Works, said the performance transforms the stage into hot, crowded courtroom in July 1925. The show will be recorded for future broadcast on KBIA/91.3 FM.

“The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial” was commissioned in 1991 and broadcast in the United States and the United Kingdom a year later. The London Times described it as “Neither theatre nor documentary, it succeeds in thrillingly being both.”

Loewenberg said the decision to perform the play again is timely. Parents in Dover, Pa., are in the middle of a trial over a school district policy requiring the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative theory to evolution. Parents argue that intelligent design, which is the theory that the complexity of the universe and living things can only be explained by the purposeful design of a higher being, is repackaged creationism and, therefore, blurs the line that separates church and state.

Earlier this year, the Kansas Board of Education held courtroom-like hearings about what children should be taught about the origins of life. Many scientists boycotted the proceedings, saying that evolution is not a theory, as intelligent design supporters maintain, but universally accepted scientific knowledge.

Loewenberg said the issues debated in the Scopes trial are especially relevant today because of the growing influence of the evangelical and conservative Christian movements in American political life.

Loewenberg said the set for “The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial” will be modest, and that the actors will be in period dress. A sound effects manager will be on stage to ensure that the recording, which she thinks is an essential aspect of the show, goes smoothly. She encourages the audience “to think of themselves as courtroom spectators in 1925 and to respond freely.”

A portion of this report first aired Thursday during the “ABC 17 News at 10.”

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