Podcast, Synopsis, Characters, Development, Reviews, Letter of Recommendation
Don Baker talks with Next Stage Press publisher Gene Kato about his plays Trade With Klan and Grand Dragon in Power.
Next Stage Press Podcast - Episode 20 - Donald E. Baker
What do you do when the people you love choose hate? In Trade With Klan, ordinary people must choose whether to resist or collaborate when the Ku Klux Klan pits Protestant against Catholic in a small Indiana town in 1925. Parallels to the religious intolerance and xenophobia of today's society are unmistakable.
In 1925, Indiana Protestants believe Catholics are plotting to take over the government and “make us all bow down to their foreign pope.” They have turned to the Klan as the force that will keep that from happening. The state is ruled by a KKK Grand Dragon and fully one-fourth of all white Protestant men are Klan members.
Newly minted preacher Daniel Lenhart returns to his hometown to find the Klan has permeated every aspect of life. Senior clergy are Klansmen, there are Klan weddings and Klan funerals, and the Klan drops in in the middle of church services. Klan activities are so commonplace they are a subject of casual conversation and radio announcements. Merchants display "Trade With Klan" signs in their store windows.
Not one of Daniel's family and friends believes they’re doing something evil or bad in joining the Klan or in pressuring Daniel to do so. They all think they’re doing the right thing for him, themselves, and their community.
Daniel finds himself caught between his conscience and his upbringing: “It’s not like the message of the Klan is foreign to me. It’s stuff I’ve been taught my whole life.” His confidant, café owner Millie Barnett, also resists joining the Women of the Klan, but she becomes a pariah and business falls off after she hires a Catholic girl, Nora Brennan.
Daniel’s high-school crush on Nora is rekindled, but when the Klan discovers this “dalliance” they warn her in no uncertain terms to “keep her hands off the preacher.” This threat leads to a near-violent confrontation between Daniel and Rev. Gideon Heyward, one of the town's Klan leaders.
After an offstage cross-burning at a Catholic-owned lumber yard becomes a conflagration in which two men—including Nora’s father—are killed, Daniel preaches a short sermon on “The Good Samaritan,” replacing Jews and Samaritans with Protestants and Catholics. He is fired from his church, and he and Nora leave town together.
Meanwhile, the threat of losing her café finally breaks Millie’s spirit. She is forced to join the Women of the Klan, displays a "Trade With Klan" sign, and puts on her robe as the lights fade on the last scene.
Note: This is a Klan play with no lynchings, a 1920’s play with no flappers. Production requirements are minimal. It calls for an ensemble cast of four women and three men. The principal set is a homey small-town café; other locations are implied. The café kitchen is offstage and the only food seen onstage is coffee and a single plate of toast.
CHARACTERS (3M, 4W)
MILLIE BARNETT--Age 45, Café owner, resists joining the Women of the Klan
“What you learn if you live long enough and you’re lucky, is … [t]he most important thing is trying not to disappoint yourself.”
HELEN BENBO--Age 47, Millie Barnett’s sister, ardent Klanswoman
“It’s thrilling to think even an ordinary Indiana housewife like me can be part of something so big, so important!”
NORA BRENNAN--Age 24, Waitress, Catholic
“To them simple friendship between a man and a woman is impossible. … I’m in their crosshairs now.”
FRANCIE ROSS--Age 24, Waitress, Protestant, engaged to Elroy Lenhart
“The Women of the Klan … [g]ives me an excuse to get out and socialize with the other women and keep up with everybody.”
REV. GIDEON HEYWARD--Age 60+, preacher, Klan leader
“All right-thinking men of God support the Klan’s efforts to defend our country from the Catholics.”
ELROY LENHART--Age 27, merchant, pragmatic Klan member
“I need this store so that’s just what you gotta do. You join stuff.”
REV. DANIEL LENHART--Age 24, Elroy’s brother, preacher just out of seminary
“I just can’t picture Jesus in a Klan robe. Of course there was a time I couldn’t imagine my mother in one either.”
Forrest, Indiana, a small county-seat town surrounded by corn fields—ethnically white, predominantly Evangelical, and fertile ground for the Ku Klux Klan. Most of the play takes place in a cozy unpretentious little café, although other locations are implied.
Summer and fall 1925, the height of KKK influence in Indiana.
Publication: Next Stage Press (2021)
Production: World Premiere, Southwest Theatre Productions, Santa Cruz Theater, Austin TX, eleven performances (January 17-February 2, 2020)
Reading: Dramatists Guild “Footlights,” Atlantic Stage, Myrtle Beach SC (January 25, 2019)
Award: New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest, 2020 (Honorable Mention)
REVIEWS OF THE AUSTIN PRODUCTION
Austin Chronicle: https://www.austinchronicle.com/arts/2020-01-31/trade-with-klan/
Southwest Theatre Productions' Trade With Klan
In Donald E. Baker's new drama, the utter plainness of an Indiana small town makes its devotion to the KKK all the more shocking.
Reviewed by Laura Jones, Friday, January 31, 2020.
Imagine for a moment Trump's world order gone awry. I know you think it already has. But consider for a moment the virus, spread. Every white person you know is in the Ku Klux Klan. The radio advertises their rallies as though they were Sunday picnics, and sometimes, they are. A conspiracy exists through the entire town – racism and exclusion – all in the guise of patriotism and civil protection. You can't so much as get married without donning a white hood and robe.
This not-so-opposite-land is the setting of Trade With Klan, a new play by Donald E. Baker, currently staged by Southwest Theatre Productions. TWK takes place not in the present or distant future, but the actual lived past of 1920s Indiana. The Klan at this time had "anywhere from 2 to 5 million members," according to the show's program, and a Grand Dragon named David Stephenson ran local and state politics, before raping and killing a 28-year-old woman and bringing his and the Klan's growing reign to an end.
Southwest Theatre Productions does a beautiful job of staging this fractured world in a homey, blue-shingled diner the color of robins' eggs. There's a gentle pacing to the cast that, I'll admit, usually drives me crazy in the theatre but here works due to the somber tone of the material. The audience is lulled. Words are considered, the way poems are.
Suzanne Orzech (Helen) as the brash, Klan-recruiting mom-next-door is a spark plug. Tom Swift as Rev. Gideon Heyward is like a Wilford Brimley gone horribly awry. Instead of safe platitudes, he spouts hatred warmed up beneath his Santa Claus beard. Emi Larraud as Daniel, the moral center of the play, shows that even for the best-intentioned of us, that center can waiver when rocked by the waters of complacency and the need for survival in a small town where Klansmen are also customers.
The story is still told squarely from the perspective of the white Protestants in town, and that, of course, is problematic. Daniel and other characters struggle with whether or not to join the Klan, but they still have that choice, while the only Black character – never seen – dies offstage in a horrible fire. Still, I liked most everything else about this show, particularly Baker's ability to write complex struggles devoid of melodrama. In today's climate, it would be easy for a play like this to teeter into preaching, especially when the main character is in fact a reverend.
TWK's success comes from the utter plainness of its milieu. This is a town we recognize. The Fourth of July banners hanging from the diner's register are familiar. The hardware store and the radio station blend so well into all we know and remember of America. The cross burnings, then, that pop up among the landscape are both horrifying and normalized, exactly like the environment we're staggering through today.
Trade With Klan sits in your soul the way the best of art does. Hats off to Baker and to Southwest Theatre Productions for staging its premiere run.
Broadway World Austin: https://www.broadwayworld.com/austin/article/BWW-Review-TRADE-WITH-KLAN-at-Southwest-Theatre-Productions-At-Santa-Cruz-Theatre-20200122
TRADE WITH KLAN at Southwest Theatre Productions At Santa Cruz Theatre
by Lynn Beaver Jan. 22, 2020
Ah the good old days! Back when the sky was clear, the water was clean and the red, white and blue of the 48-star spangled banner still waved true. Only not so much for people of color and immigrants who came to the "land of opportunity". Prejudice and racism is as American as apple pie as Southwest Theatre Productions's world premiere of Trade With Klan by Donald E. Baker so clearly illustrates.
Set in small town Indiana in the 1920's, Trade With Klan portrays the Klu Klux Klan's stranglehold on daily life in middle America. After WWI, the US moved towards isolationism and away from the free immigration policies of previous decades. With still more refugees coming from Europe, the Klan continued to enforce its white supremacy policy with a twist that would surprise people today. Most of us are aware of the deep anti-Semitic feelings of the KKK, and their violent campaign against people of color, but did you know that white people of the Catholic faith were also targeted? Being born in the 1960's, I remember being told by friends not to wear my crucifix or my St. Christopher's medal on the outside of my clothing. It puzzled me as a kid, I mean, wasn't it the same God? What I didn't know at the time was that techniques of 'othering' enforced by the local Klan made me someone my friends parents objected to. What seems unbelievable today was commonplace and socially acceptable in mostly white communities.
The story begins as a new minister Daniel (Emi Larraud) returns to his hometown to take over his late grandfather's pulpit. He finds the town changed from the one he left and is disturbed by everyone's open Klan membership, including his brother Elroy (Kyle Turetzky). Signs with the slogan "Trade With Klan" have appeared in shop windows all over town and Daniel has been told to shun his Catholic friend, Nora (Chiara Russi McCarty). His refusal to do so brings down the pressure of the KKK on his head. Rounding out the townsfolk are Millie (Meredith O'Brien) the owner of the local cafe, who is one of the last holdouts. She tries to help Nora by giving her a job but fellow waitress, Francie (Bonnie Lambert) treats the Catholic girl with mistrust. The town busybody Helen (Suzanne Orzech) spreads her social network of the Klan's women's auxiliary even though her conscience gives her the occasional qualm. Perhaps the most surprising member of the community to push hate is Rev. Gideon Heyward (Tom Swift). He preaches Klan from the pulpit and threatens those who don't follow along. The whole town turns on the 'others' in their midst and tragedy strikes.
The most important takeaway from Trade With Klan, is that even in the most seemingly innocent places, hate and intolerance can grow and fester. While the South seethed with open violence, lynchings and murder, the Midwest was growing the same seeds in silence and shadows.
Southwest Theatre Productions has a tradition of tackling the hardest subjects with shows like Cages and Sweat. Kat Sparks and Jan Phillips often bring new plays to Austin, Trade With Klan is no different. Submitted to SWTP's Rising Artists play competition, this world premiere brings a new voice to the stage. Donald E. Baker's script is startling as well as poignant and moving. His dialogue is clear and has a wonderful touch of middle American humor sprinkled among the characters. What this play does best is it shows us the parallels between 1920 and today. Lines that make the audience groan with knowledge of what lies ahead for our country are often wry and connect with viewers immediately. It made me remember instances from my Catholic childhood that were long forgotten, one of which I've already mentioned. Trade With Klan is worthy of large audiences and should be seen all over this country.
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE NEXT STAGE PRESS WEBPAGE
From cast member Suzanne Orzech: “This play changed my life. I was fortunate enough to originate the role of Helen in the world premiere of TWK in Austin, Texas. This show changed my life in so many ways. The characters are real, the emotion is raw and cutting. When you are watching the actors and listening to them share their beliefs, their hopes, their fears...at times the situations seem almost absurd by today’s standards. Yet this story is based on the author’s own life...these things really happened. So much of this play can be applied to what is happening in society today on many different levels...and what might seem absurd as we get caught up in the different characters’ motivations does make the audience stop and think twice...about a lot of things. Donald E. Baker has written a work that needs to be performed widely and seen by audiences everywhere.
From an audience member: “Finding your ‘moral compass.’ This play may take place in the 1920s but the issues are so similar to what we face on the 2020s. Religious bigotry, racism, loss of moral grounding, erosion of principles are only a few of the issues that this play faces head on. It will make you uncomfortable and challenge you to think of your own prejudices. We were fortunate to see the excellent production in Austin, TX. Their cast was superb. Community theaters will find each character a challenge to your actors and yet a reward for the work that it takes to bring them alive. Even though most of the main characters are men, the women are the ones who carry this play by the way they confront and work through the issues and make decisions about survival in a small town.
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM READERS ON NEW PLAY EXCHANGE
John Patrick Bray: “I had the pleasure of seeing a reading of this play during Friday Night Footlights - Myrtle Beach years ago. Baker’s play is a haunting reminder that the past has not gone anywhere, and the racism that infected our communities then continue to infect our communities now. There are no easy answers, but perhaps by confronting out past we can begin to imagine and work toward a better future.”
Philip Middleton Williams: “Just as “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee makes the point that their play isn’t about a specific moment in history -- The Scopes Trial -- “it could be yesterday; it could be tomorrow,” Donald E. Baker’s cautionary tale “Trade With Klan: A Play about Choices” isn’t just about a small town in Indiana in the thrall of the KKK. It’s about people nurturing their intolerance that they resort to the comfort of bigotry and the assurance of their own self-indulgent righteousness. This is a universal lesson, and worth hearing again and again.”
Craig Houk: “Baker’s Trade With Klan outright reminds us that society has made little to no progress in 100 years. And in fact, today it feels like we’re on the verge of having history repeated, this time with heightened ferocity & defiance. We were living in dangerous times then and if we are not vigilant now, we may very well lose what little remains of our humanity. Conspiracies, resentment, hatred, paranoia, discrimination, sexism, racism, all burn deceptively like grass fire in this riveting dramedy. An unsettling script with exceptional dialogue & exquisitely drawn characters. A compelling read. A must stage.”
Doug DeVita: “This period piece from Donald E. Baker perfectly captures the rural America of both past and contemporary society, and jolts one out of even the tiniest bit of complacency which may have set in since the change in administration with nearly every well-considered line. As timeless as it is timely, TRADE WITH KLAN… is ugly, and brutal, and pulls no punches. It is a must read, must produce part of the ongoing American story.”
Andrew Martineau: “This provocative and gripping play, essentially about the KKK and its hold on a insulated, rural community in Indiana, slowly builds in intensity and vividly paints a congregation of followers with blind devotion to an organization of hate and, sadly, considerable power. Baker cleverly references Bible verses about sheep with characters wondering why there are so many of them. Daniel is a protagonist for our times, as well as for those one hundred years ago when the play is set. The title shows us how the Klan offered economic prosperity, and how the sheep gladly followed. Simply stunning!”
Jarred Corona: “Goodness. Perhaps it’s partly because I recently consumed Midnight Mass, but this play had me on the edge up through its end. 'Something absolutely horrible is going to happen,' I thought. Religion plays a rough and weird spot in my life. To put it simply, even though it isn’t labeled as such and has an ending not of the genre, for me, this is one of the best pieces of horror I’ve consumed in a while. With great dialogue and characters, Baker has made what I’d call a masterwork. Topical, horrifying, and yet, somehow, hopeful. Love can carry over hate.”
Marcia Eppich-Harris: “Donald Baker’s play revisits the mid-1920s to remind us of how deeply frightening religious zealots can be. A town (and state) consumed by the KKK is our scene, and the young preacher Daniel has to decide whether to submit, as even his brother does, or stick to his principles. It is a sad state of affairs that this is even a question, and yet the pressure from his hometown is so intense, and the situation so seemingly unavoidable, it makes one uneasy about the outcome. Gripping and insightful commentary on the religious right!”
Jan Probst: “Set in a small Indiana town, not unlike the one in which I grew up, the deep roots of the Ku Klux Klan are revealed in this provocative play. Bigotry and intolerance drive some characters forward while creating difficult moments of choice for others. Lives and livelihoods are threatened. The parallels to our present time are nothing less than chilling. Brilliantly executed, with some surprising results. Read it. Stage it.”
Everett Robert: “Donald Baker’s Trade With Klan is a powerful, moving piece that serves not just as a historical narrative of the KKK but as a poignant reminder of the power of zealotry then and a warning of the power of zealotry now. The parallel stories of Millie and Dan and the choices they are forced to make will break your heart and hopefully, steel your resolve. A powerful work and highly recommended.”
Tom Rowan: This is a well-researched and provocative piece. I learned things I didn’t know about the Klan. By setting the play in a quaint Indiana community and peopling it with familiar small-town types, Baker cannily reveals the insidiousness of conspiracy theories, mob paranoia, and xenophobia: this can happen in “our town. “A sharply effective cautionary tale that is disturbingly relevant in today’s world.
Christopher Plumridge: “This play is a world away from any I know, so I was intrigued to read and learn. Baker creates an extremely interesting, uncomfortable and well researched play of bigotry, hate and intolerance, the like we should never see in this day and age, but sadly still do. I particularly admired the writer’s use of language; this Englishman could not help but to read it in an Southern American accent! Wonderful!”
Nora Louise Syran: “Brilliant. The all-white cast was for me as chilling as the women-only ending of Lorca's Blood Wedding or Toni Morrison's deeply rooted ingrained racism of the mainly African-American community in The Bluest Eye. Baker's play ranks up with these great works. It is unsettling. It is timely and the historical grounding of the piece makes it feel like it unfortunately always will be. The piece effortlessly transports us to another time. It moves steadily along, punctuated by the regular radio broadcasts vainly tying this small Indiana town to the hope of the wider world outside. Read it. Produce it. Bravo. “
John Mabey: “It takes such skill and empathy to explore the bigotry, intolerance, and xenophobia of a different era. And in Trade With Klan: A Play About Choices, Donald E. Baker succeeds on an even higher level as he draws parallels between that era and today. The writing is so clear and sharp as characters struggle both externally and internally over shared and divergent identities. Each character wrestles with these hard truths about themselves and society at large, making this an incredible play that not only entertains but enlightens as well.”
LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
By way of introduction, I am a co-founder and the artistic director of Southwest Theatre Productions in Austin, Texas, where we’re in our seventh (7th) year of full stage productions. I'm also a year-round reader for a major international film festival as well as a coverage reader for a well-recognized film evaluation company.
I had the privilege of working with Donald E. Baker for several months during our production of his play, Trade With Klan. We selected his play as a winner in our 2019 annual competition, and put it up in January-February of 2020. We received hundreds of submissions from all over the world and ultimately chose Trade With Klan because of its timely and thought-provoking theme, and Don’s engaging writing style. This piece was loved by our audience members and Austin critics. With its relatable dialogue, well-structured storytelling, and pacing, it quickly became obvious that this was a patron favorite.
This play is highly producible: The setting is simple and fun to design due to the time period. Costumes are minimal in cost, and lighting is as simple as you’ll ever find.
I had my first introduction to Don via Zoom chat and it was immediately apparent that he was professional, kind, and open to suggestion. He made himself available for further meetings, was respectful of our process and our time, and did everything that was asked of him without hesitation.
Don attended opening weekend and participated in a talkback afterwards. He answered every question thoughtfully, and was generous in his compliments to the actors and our theatre company. The audience (and we) fell in love with him.
The production was absolutely successful in every way. And best of all, the cast and crew could not stop talking about how much they enjoyed being a part of this show. Friends and family of the cast came multiple times, bringing others.
This play is amazing, and Don is a great asset during production. I have no hesitation stating that you’ll be forever grateful that you ran across this play, and this playwright.
Please feel free to contact me directly with any further questions you may have.
Cofounder, Artistic Director
Southwest Theatre Productions