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The Barter Blog

"In the Heat of the Night" review by Zach Cooley

April 20, 2018

When I heard that Barter Theatre would be performing the Matt Pelfrey adaptation of John Ball's In the Heat of the Night, I knew this would be the personally most anticipated show of the 2018 season. My wife Emily and I attended the opening show on April 7th, which did not disappoint. It's hard to top the Academy Award-winning film starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, but the actors at the historic Abingdon theater did their usual more than impressive job.

I had an opportunity to read a copy of the script penned by Matt Pelfrey, which helped me to appreciate the performance offered by the Barter Theatre actors even more. The Pelfrey script is filled with unnecessary profanity, which the Barter actors cleaned up nicely, giving a stirring and gripping performance without the unnecessary foul language. An obvious choice out of the Barter Theatre Company to play Virgil Tibbs would have been Jasper McGruder in my opinion. To my surprise, he took on the role as director, of which I must say he pulled off as stellar as he would have on stage. Instead, the role of Virgil Tibbs went to a newcomer, Amara Aja, who made his debut at the Barter Theatre stage in a part that held every bit the command and presence of Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs. Justin Tyler Lewis also made the character of Sam Wood a much friendlier sort than previously portrayed. He was also much more entertaining, and his dialogue provided greater humor than any other portrayal of Sam Wood that I have ever seen. Lewis also served as the fight captain for this play, resulting in some very impressively choreographed fight scenes.

Although I think Michael Poisson would have been better suited to play Chief Bill Gillespie than Rick McVey, he still did a humorous enough job as the coroner, the mayor, and one of the hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan. Giving credit where credit is due, Rick McVey did a better job as Gillespie than I expected and the chemistry between him and Aja, which was essential to this particular play, was executed well in my opinion. I cannot forget Sam McCalla who was a dead ringer for Ralph in the film adaptation. He was the only one I could picture playing this role. Zacchaeus Kimball also did a better than expected job as antagonist policeman Pete.

Nicholas Piper also took on a triple role for this play, performing particularly well as Charles Tatum, the dead body that is discovered by Sam Wood at the beginning of the play. He also portrays the town billionaire, Mr. Endicott, and another Klansman. I doubt if many people realize how hard it must be for a live person to play a corpse, but Piper did it with significant distinction. I also like the way Matt Pelfrey's adaptation of the story included imaginary scenes, which allowed you a live picture of what each character was thinking when it came to who committed the murder.

While the message of this story is clearly about race, there is something to be said for the fact that it is a good old-fashioned murder mystery that can rank with the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. All the while, the moral of the story is revolutionary. One must remember that the novel and film were released at the height of the Civil Rights Movement when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was still living. The people who made this story come to life did so at high personal risk. Having emerged victorious, John Ball's In the Heat of the Night has inspired a legacy that has spawned numerous adaptations in theater, literature, film, and television, the ladder most notably was the Emmy-winning series starring Carroll O'Connor.

To me, nothing beats the original film, but as per usual, Barter Theatre brings this timeless tale to life as best as any theater could. The cast and crew of this fantastic production, which runs through mid-May, are all first rate. Though I had met Jasper McGruder before, being able to shake his hand after the show still left me in awe. My father was a police officer in High Point, North Carolina beginning in 1966 and worked alongside a gentleman named Benjamin Collins who was hired three years earlier as one of the first African Americans ever to work on that police force. They remained in each other's highest regard until Benjamin's passing last year. My father says the film sheds considerable light on what daily life was for a police officer in the South, both black and white.

The story of In the Heat of the Night is not just about equality and prejudices against African-Americans. If you delve into the story any at all, you see that Virgil Tibbs has just as many prejudices to put aside to do the job. Both he and Gillespie as well as Sam Wood achieve this through the course of the story, which is what makes this particular writing one that will hold up through the ages. Unfortunately, it is a lesson humans will all need to continue to learn. My continued and ongoing thinks go to Richard Rose, Mary Taylor and all the other members of the staff at Barter Theatre who are kinder to me than I deserve. May we keep the legacy of Bob Porterfield alive for many generations to come. For more information on this play and others, call 276-628-3991 or visit their website at