For Immediate Release
July 17, 2013
Salem, MA—Salem, one of American's most historic seaport cities, will host a new production by Gordon professor and playwright Mark Stevick based on the notorious 1830 murder of Salem sea captain Joseph White. Goodnight, Captain White will premiere Saturday, July 26 with weekend performances through August 3 at The Griffen Theatre. The show creates a new nighttime offering in Salem for those who want to dive into the city's lesser known maritime era via party fare, belly laughs and a seat on the 1830 committee of vigilance.
The year 1830 changed Salem. Captain Joseph White, a rich, elderly retired shipmaster, was murdered in his sleep in his Essex Street home. The murderers were local and the prosecuting attorney famous. Daniel Webster, hired by the White family to prosecute for the Commonwealth, described the case thus: “It has hardly a precedent anywhere; certainly none in our New England history. It was a cool, calculating, moneymaking murder. It was all 'hire and salary, not revenge.'”
Stevick's previous productions have been featured by Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, A&E, Nickelodeon, TLC, NPR, BBC, CNN and MTV. His Cry Innocent, which is performed five days a week during the summer at Salem's Old Town Hall, is the longest continuously-running show north of Boston.
A Salem resident himself, Stevick first heard about the famous murder in the 1980s while on a private tour of the Gardner Pingree House—Joseph’s White home when the murder occurred. Years later, after launching Cry Innocent, he remembered the story and began to think about writing the story as a production for the stage. “We had discovered through Cry Innocent in those early years that Salem was a great place to make theatre based on history,” Stevick said. “I wanted to write something for the actors of History Alive!, the professional acting branch of Gordon College, that would use all the interactive and improv skills they were honing through Cry Innocent, while teaching a new story about Salem history. The murder of Joseph White was the perfect challenge.”
But Stevick was also cautious. Though Captain White had no heirs, descendants of the murderers lived locally across the North Shore, and some had long connections with the community's historic Peabody Essex Museum—a maritime museum with roots that date back to 1799. As Stevick began to research and draft his script, he consulted frequently with those descendants as he wrote the play.
As research on the famous murder continued, it was discovered that the issue of how much to discuss the lurid event was the source of consternation for Salem residents in 1830. The Salem Gazette also struggled with whether to report the details of the autopsy but ultimately the paper decided that “However revolting the subject may be…we have deemed it our duty to lay before our readers every particle of authentic information we can obtain, respecting the horrible crime which has so shocked and alarmed our community.”
Sixteen years ago, Stevick secured the approval of the murderer’s family members for his final work. The first presentation of the script included descendants of the trial in the audience--some of whom even volunteered to participate in the show’s antics during a staged reading. In 1999 Goodnight, Captain White played in finished form at the site of the former Lyceum on Church Street. The location was fitting as the Lyceum offered a place for Salemites to improve their minds and had served as a palliative to citizens distraught over the grisly murder of their well-known neighbor. In the decade and a half since Goodnight, Captain White premiered in Salem, the murder has been the subject of a Smithsonian magazine article, a full length book by Robert Booth, and the scripts of the ubiquitous nighttime walking tours. This July, the script returns to downtown Salem for the first time in 13 years.
Since 1992 History Alive! has been producing original work about local history. Goodnight, Captain White’s style is a bit of a departure from their other productions. The script deliberately plays fast and loose with the story and some names have been changed to better personify the characters. Modern references abound and the humor is, at times, on the naughty side. Director Jill Rogati, who took first prize in the 2013 Boston 48-Hour Film Festival as co-creator of Brainfox, has created a performance style that is feverishly paced, highly physical, and witty, with themes of façade and constraint. Rogati (who grew up in Essex, another town of ship-building fame) also designed and directed the staging for the show.
The Griffen Theatre will transform into the setting of a party thrown by Captain White on the retirement of his favorite ship in Salem Harbor, to which he invites all friends and well wishers from the community. Of course, this magnanimous invitation also lures a host of enemies and ill-wishers, creating the perfect opportunity for a murder mystery on the stage.
In traditional Stevick style, the audience participates in the production. It’s up to the audience and an undercover Daniel Webster to figure out whodunit and how.
Goodnight, Captain White returns to Salem on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays July 26 to August 3. The Griffen Theatre is located at 7 Lynde Street and tickets can be purchsed at the door or online. Admission is $23 per person and $20 seniors. Admission includes BonBons and Bubbly. To view more about this production, including cast profiles, visit the production Facebook page online.
History Alive!, a branch of the Gordon College Department of Theatre Arts, creates original theatre based on true stories from the past. Emphasis is given to audience interaction so that each performance is fresh, surprising and playful. The company also seeks to invigorate the local economy by designing activities which connect the community and its visitors to a distinct, local history.