AURORA | It starts with a few offhand remarks, racially charged comments that hint at a deeper current of intolerance.
One asks for coffee with cream, instructing “make it the color of Lena Horne.” Another declares while doling out a check, “If there’s anything a Jew likes, it’s loot.”
The loaded language between the two characters in William Downs’ drama “Innocent Thoughts,” which kicks off the Shadow Theatre Company’s 13th season, can be discomfiting and uncomfortable. The piece tackles misconceptions and prejudices unflinchingly; Down uses a courtroom mystery as a platform to delve into deep seated social questions of race and perception.
More than a decade after the drama premiered as the Shadow Theatre’s inaugural production, its questions are no less significant and its mystery is no less engaging. The current production seamlessly shifts between its dual roles as a social statement and a compelling whodunit, as it mixes elements of Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” with components from playwright August Wilson’s series “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”
What emerges is a thoughtful statement about two racial realities, a measured look at what ties and what separates the black experience and the Jewish experience in America. In the end, the commonalities are what stand out.
The minimalist drama centers on a black lawyer who is defending a white police officer accused of killing a black man and burying the body in his backyard. All of the action takes place in a single jury room in a Chicago City Court, as defense attorney Ironala Aldridge and Dr. Arlen Weinberg, an anthropologist brought in to testify as an expert witness, discuss the specifics of the case.
The scope of the conversation quickly reaches beyond questions of evidence and motive. Aldridge and Weinberg uncover common roots, a shared childhood in the same part of Chicago. They went to the same elementary school and fought in the streets after class ended. Growing up in the Jewish and black parts of Chicago, both harbored secret envies and hidden bitterness toward the other, both wondered about the other’s reality.
These early interactions take on added dimensions as the play progresses. The dialogue gets heated and the language becomes more offensive as the drama’s two characters slog through their personal prejudices.
Weinberg struggles in his guise as a Jewish liberal; he doesn’t object when Aldridge calls him a “bagel;” he insists he knows “several people in my field ... who are black, African-American.” Aldridge, meanwhile, has been slanted by his role as a black attorney defending a white cop. He explains that as a public defender, he gets “the cases where race is involved.” He calls himself the “token black” on the public defender team.
Eventually, the back-and-forth between Iranola Aldridge and Arlen Weinberg feels like a treatise on race and perception.
And that’s before the pair get around to solving a 21-year-old murder case, which carries its own implications.
The current staging benefits from a seasoned cast and thoughtful direction, elements that help retain the original force of Downs’ text. Kw Brock Johnson and S.B. Neilson take up the considerable demands of the two lead roles with subtlety and ease.
As Weinberg, Neilson makes a stunning onstage transformation. He offers a timid demeanor when he enters, taken by excessive fits of blinking and stuttering when pressed by Aldridge. After an hour of being goaded and pushed, however, Neilson makes a notable shift, bringing convictions and force to his arguments.
As Aldridge, Johnson offers a similarly nuanced performance. The emotional high points come when he recalls his childhood as the son of a preacher and his later rejection of his father’s face. Johnson stumbled through some of moments of dialogue, but the overall performance remained seamless.
Director Hugo Jon Sayles and assistant director ShaShauna Staton also help give the dialogue-based drama a sense of movement and dynamism. Both characters make full use of the one-room set, and the imaginative blocking makes the stage seem bigger.
Some of the dialogue has clear roots in the 1990s. References to Court TV and the media circus surrounding the trial summon echoes of the O.J. Simpson trial, the Rodney King trial and several other defining moments from the formative era of cable news.
Still, the questions and the quandaries remain current for a modern audience. More than decade after the Shadow debuted, the company remains true to its original artistic mission. It’s still offering cutting edge theater that hints at the heart of the human condition.
Three out of four stars
"Innocent Thoughts" runs at the Shadow Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., until Oct. 10. Tickets start at $25. For showtimes or more information, log on to www.shadowtheatre.com or call 720-857-8000.