Patrick Sims’ moving ’10 Perfect’ an extraordinary performance

By - Feb 27th, 2011 12:22 pm
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Patrick Sims recreates James Cameron's story

Patrick Sims recreates James Cameron’s story – Photo by Jeff Miller, UW-Madison

“You were born with 10 perfect fingers and 10 perfect toes and perfect brown eyes and curly black hair. God made you perfect in his own way.”

In Patrick Sims’ one-man show, 10 Perfect: A Lynching Survivor’s Story, an African-American mother repeats that line to her young son, to inoculate him from early 20th-century racism in rural Indiana, where the KKK was a force and race lynchings occurred. Sims, a theater professor at UW-Madison, performed 10 Perfect Saturday at Cardinal Stritch University and will repeat it at 5 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 27).

The true story of story of James Cameron’s unique escape from being lynched in 1930 in Marion, Indiana, inspired Sims. He spent a decade developing a show that brings the time and place to life. The playwright/actor has woven a rich and gripping tapestry of life as a black child coming of age in the segregated North. He plays 18 characters of all ages and races and conjures up a whole community, from its church to its “sugar shack” to its country store and to its biracial but segregated high school.

Flaws and humanity coexist in his multi-dimensional characters. Unwritten rules of segregation shape their behavior and create assumptions of superiority or deference. Some challenge convention, but do it out of complex motivations. When a high school swim coach discovers that the African-American protagonist, James Solomon, is a fast swimmer, he offers Solomon a role teaching the white kids to swim. When the team gets to the state tournament, a chance for Solomon himself to compete leads to heart-warming, humorous but finally disturbing events. “Enlightened” administrators allow the competition, even though will be costly to drain and clean the pool after a black student swims in it.

Sims’ play tells Cameron’s story indirectly, through fiction, until the end. The Solomon character, now a young adult, becomes enmeshed in a web of events that lead to his being all but lynched; his two companions are lynched. The iconic photograph from that real event, projected behind Sims, shows two men hanging. James Cameron was to be hung in the space between them. (The photograph had repercussions. For one, it inspired poet Lewis Allen and song-writer Billie Holliday to write Strange Fruit.)

Ethel White - Strange Fruit Quilt

Quilt – Strange Fruit – by Ethel White

Sims transforms himself into one character after another in entirely convincing fashion, through nothing but stance, gesture and voice. Often, he portrays three or more characters in rapid dialogue. The characters are distinct, yet the whole is uncommonly unified. With only Sims on stage, the play is pure and without the stylistic clutter that a big cast can bring to the stage. Sims realizes that this merger of characters has its own healing effect.

Sims began work on this play more than a decade ago, as a graduate student.  10 Perfect fits the mission of his Theatre for Cultural & Social Awareness, which Sims created and directs in Madison. He put the piece into full production last year, and it has the look of a lifetime commitment. Sims credits Sheri Williams Pannell, a Milwaukee director, playwright and actor, with helping to bring the work to life. (More on that here.)

Admission is free to the 5 p.m. Sunday show, but a reservation is required. Email or call (414) 410-4340. Reservations are valid until 4:50 p.m., when any empty seats will open to all. (This is a large auditorium, so available seats are likely.)

The performance unfolds in a riveting 70 minutes, but plan to stay for the talk-back with Sims and a panel including James Cameron’s son, Virgil. (At Saturday’s talk, Cameron announced plans to reopen the American Black Holocaust Museum, which James Cameron founded, in the near future.)

Also plan to view Ethel M. White’s moving quilt, Strange Fruit, commemorating the victims of lynching in the U.S.  Two large panels are required to list all of the names of victims. The latest is James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas, 1998.

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