THEATER REVIEW: “John Ball’s ‘In the Heat of the Night’” @ SLCA [Berkshire on Stage]

October 10th, 2017, 2:00 pm by Sara

Chief Gillespie needs the help of travelling Detective Virgil Tibbs to solve a murder that has brought the town of Argo, Alabama to a boiling point. (l-r: Chris Foster as Chief Gillespie and Aileem Penn as Mister Tibbs). Photo by Adam Wilson-Hwang.

Review by Barbara Waldinger

It has been said that a director’s hand should be invisible; that his/her job is to bring the text to life from the page to the stage without imposing an alien concept onto the material. However, there are times when a directorial concept is so powerful that it transforms the way we see a play. Patrick White’s smashing yet minimalist directorial debut of John Ball’s “In the Heat of the Night” at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts in Averill Park is one of those times.

In the Heat of the Night has gone through several incarnations and spawned diverse progeny. Initially a novel by Schenectady native John Ball, in 1967 it was converted into a popular film written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Norman Jewison. Starring Sidney Poitier as detective Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger as police chief Bill Gillespie, the movie garnered five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor (Steiger). Next was the stage play, adapted from the novel by Matt Pelfrey, which was originally produced by the Free Southern Theater, a community theatre operating from 1963 until 1980 in Mississippi, as part of the Black Theatre Movement as well as the Civil Rights Movement. Denise Nicholas, one of four founders of the FST, went on to become a writer of the successful television series based on the same characters which ran from 1988 to 1995. Two film sequels appeared in the early 1970s, and Ball went on to write many other novels featuring Virgil Tibbs. There are also a number of songs titled In the Heat of the Night, among which is a version by Ray Charles, whose music was played between scenes of the Circle Theatre Players’ production at SLCA.

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In the Heat of the Night is a detective story that focuses on the relationship between Gillespie (Chris Foster), a white sheriff, and Virgil Tibbs (Aileem Penn), a visiting black detective, in 1962 Alabama, as they try to solve a murder. Racism rears its ugly head from beginning to end of this play, which takes place in the crucible of the Civil Rights era.

Click to read the rest at Berkshire on Stage.