Scopes monkey trial play to be performed in Nashville

What would it have been like to have been in the Rhea County, Tenn., courtroom during the summer of 1925 to witness William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow argue Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes? Theatergoers will have the opportunity to experience it for themselves when Great Performances at Vanderbilt presents The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial on Oct. 19 and 20.

“The trial of the century” took place 150 miles from Nashville in Dayton , Tenn. , and 80 years later it is still the subject of intense debate as school systems across the country argue what can be taught about the origins of life.

The first court case broadcast on American radio, it prompted discussion in living rooms around the nation about whether evolution was scientific fact or only a theory. A recent resurgence of interest in the case has resulted from the debate over the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools.

Great Performances will bring the national tour of this play by Peter Goodchild to Nashville , with a professional troupe featuring Ed Asner, John de Lancie and Alley Mills. Goodchild’s docudrama is adapted from the actual transcripts of the trial that transfixed the nation in 1925. Joining the cast for the Nashville dates is Jason Scott Dechert, a Vanderbilt theater major, who will play a student called to testify in the trial. Nashville is the first stop outside California for the tour of this production by L.A. Theatre Works, renowned for its radio plays.

The play anchors a three-day arts residency program at Vanderbilt, which also features an “Actors’ Talk Back” event with members of the cast who will discuss their craft and a forum about the enduring Scopes trial controversy. Both are free and open to the public.

The Actors’ Talk Back event, “Inside Acting,” will be in Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema from 6 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Bennett Tarleton, audience development director for the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, will moderate this discussion.

An hour-long pre-performance forum, “The Scopes Trial: A Continuing Controversy,” is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Curb Event Center at Belmont University; both the forum and the play will be held on the Belmont campus while Vanderbilt’s usual Great Performances venue is under renovation.

Vanderbilt Professor of Law Lisa Bressman will moderate the panel, which will include Volney Gay, professor of religious studies and chair of the department and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture at Vanderbilt; Charles Israel, associate professor of history at Auburn University and author of Before Scopes: Evangelicalism, Education, and Evolution in Tennessee, 1870-1925; Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; and David Williams, Vanderbilt professor of law and the university’s general counsel.

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial will follow the panel discussion on Oct. 19 and will be presented again the following night at the Curb Center . Curtain time for both shows is 8 p.m. Tickets, which are $26, $30 and $34, are available at the Sarratt Student Center box office and all Ticketmaster outlets or by calling (615) 255-9600 or visiting Group discounts, as well as special prices for seniors, students and children, are available.

Free parking for the Curb Center is available in Belmont ’s Bernard Avenue garage.

In announcing the 22-city tour, L.A. Theatre Works Producing Director Susan Loewenberg said, “What is striking about The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial is its relevance to today’s debate over the relationship between religion and science. This is not a play that takes sides, but rather stimulates the audience to take a fresh look at two very different points of view.”

The play was commissioned by L.A. Theatre Works and the BBC and was first performed and broadcast in the United States and Great Britain in 1992. Of the drama, the Los Angeles Times said, “As one of the seminal First Amendment trials in American history, it’s radio drama of a special order.” The London Times added, “Neither theater nor documentary, it succeeds in thrillingly being both.”

In addition to Vanderbilt, co-sponsors for The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial and the Nashville residency activities include the Tennessee Arts Commission, the ACLU, Nashville Public Radio, the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture at Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt Law School .

Information on the 2005-06 Great Performances season is at More information about L.A. Theatre Works is at

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