Sold Out Run at the Tabard Theatre San Jose

Never underestimate the power of local interest!  I attended a performance of Swift Justice at the Tabard Theatre in San Jose, a new play about the true story of the 1933 kidnapping and murder of San Jose native Brooke Hart, heir to the Hart’s Department Store fortune. The subsequent lynching of his alleged murderers in St. James Park set off a national debate about mob rule and vigilante justice.Tabard-logo In his brief introduction before the performance, Executive Director of the theatre Nick Nichols told the audience that for the first time in their history, the entire run of the show was entirely sold out, and this had occurred before the opening performance!  When I asked him at intermission why he thought they achieved this remarkable sold-out status, he said they weren’t expecting it, but he was pretty sure it was the story and that a lot of local residents still remembered or had relatives who did or some personal connection or interest in this historical San Jose event.  He was sorry to have to turn away people who wanted to see the show “but it was, of course, a great problem to have.”

Swift Justice, the play, was written by Tom McEnery and based on the book “Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town” by Harry Farrell.

Cast of Swift Justice at the Tabard Theatre

Cast of Swift Justice at the Tabard Theatre

Artistic Director Cathy Spielberger Cassetta explained in press materials that it “premiered as a ten-minute play last season in Tabard’s production of “10 in 10: Perspective,” wherein photographs taken by local photographers inspired stories written by local playwrights.  Swift Justice was the short play from that production about which subscribers were most interested in learning more.”

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On a bare stage, assisted only by an occasional chair or two, the story is told in a straightforward way that generally holds your interest.  Well-known Bay Area names are, sometimes gratuitously, sprinkled into the text (Vince Hallinan, A.P. Gianini, Earl Warren) and the few jokes are local audience specific (references to Santa Clara University, “the City Council is on vacation . . . again”). Don’t look for layers or multi-faceted characters here, but it’s a worthwhile reminder of how recently, and how easily, the rule of law and mob hysteria come into conflict and it’s a story we should know and not forget.

I have attended other plays at the Tabard Theatre over the last few years and they have a lovely tradition that for each show they designate a local non-profit organization which is thematically linked to the story being performed and donate a portion of all concession proceeds to that organization at the end of the run.  (In the case of Swift Justice, the designated non-profit is History San Jose, for the work they do collecting, preserving, and celebrating the stories of diversity and innovation in San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley.)    One of the treats sold at the bar is their trademark delicious custom-made sugar cookies in shapes and decorations also themed to the show on stage.  (I think I remember personally having eaten in the past a Star of David and a suitcase.)

The Tabard Theatre itself is somewhat unusual and a lovely space to see a play.  On the second floor of an old brick building on San Pedro Square in San Jose, the first row of seats is set up with small cabaret tables on the floor and there are theatre seats at the bar at the back.  While the wide three-sided stage is probably a challenge for the actors and directors, it is a nice, large performance space yet still provides a sense of intimacy in this 150-200 seat theatre.  In addition to their bent for historical interest plays, their season always includes a musical or two.  Still to come this year are the musicals I Do! I Do! and Crowns.  You can get tickets for those shows on their website.

I enjoy coming to this theatre and think it is a great example of the kind of small, energetic and tenacious local effort we should support.

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