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'Afflicted: Daughters of Salem' stirs controversy over wrongful hangings

Alisha Espinosa, Emily Phillips, Nicole Greenberg, Emily Shackelford, Jessica Jensen and Hannah Thompson star in The Coterie & UMKC’s World Premiere co-production of "Afflicted:  Daughters of Salem," an award-winning new drama.
Alisha Espinosa, Emily Phillips, Nicole Greenberg, Emily Shackelford, Jessica Jensen and Hannah Thompson star in The Coterie & UMKC’s World Premiere co-production of "Afflicted: Daughters of Salem," an award-winning new drama.
J. Robert Schraeder and courtesy of The Coterie

Afflicted: Daughters of Salem

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The Coterie and UMKC collaborate to dramatize and undertake a new look at the Salem Witch Trials and the “witches” that conjured up the catastrophic black mark in America’s early history when they present the world premier of Afflicted: Daughters of Salem.

"Afflicted;  Daughters of Salem" opened Jan 28 at The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City's Crown Center and runs thought Feb. 23.
The Coterie Theatre kansas City

Undoubtedly, the most hated sextet in American history, the Salem witches touched off a witch hunt that remains one of the darkest, most horrible scandals in America’s history. Afflicted: Daughters of Salem looks at the lives of the girls before they became the notorious Salem Witches. The story bends history, so accuracy is not the paramount attraction of this piece; rather, interest and supposition take the forefront.

Notorious for their lies and deceit, the girls of Salem get caught up in a series of lies that rock the strict religious minded habitants of the small village of Salem, MA, just about 40 miles from Boston in the late 1690's. The hysteria began with Tituba, a slave from the West Indies and a group of girls led by Abigail Adams started pointing others out and claiming they saw them performing witchcraft. The more the hysteria spread, the more the girls pointed out others to keep their notoriety and fend off any possibility of being discovered as liars.

As a side note, similar witch hunts, ongoing throughout Europe may be part of the reason the insanity took root. Still, these six children, less than 14 years of age, became America’s first serial killers, after 19 were murdered and as many as 13 more died in prison, awaiting their execution.

Afflicted: Daughters of Salem comes from a play by Laurie Brooks and falls into the directing hands of Coterie Artistic Director, Jeff Church. The show opens Jan. 28 and runs through Feb. 23 at The Coterie, Level one of Crown Center Shops, Kansas City, Missouri Ticket prices range from $10 for youth less than 18, full-time students, and seniors age 60 and older; to $15 for adults, Discounts are available for groups of 20 or more. For more information, go to the website: www.thecoterie.org or call the box office 816.474.6552.

Afflicted: Daughters of Salem, a National Endowment for the Arts award-winning new drama
commissioned by The Coterie from playwright Laurie Brooks, begins before the Salem Witch
Trials. Afflicted: Daughters of Salem is inspired by the clique of teen girl accusers that forever
established the legacy of Salem. The fictionalized account of their life in Salem village and the pressures they endured in such a closed society comes into focus in the play.

Give lots of credit to Church for his assembling of such a talented ensemble of young women for the play. Alisha Espinosa (as Tituba), Emily Phillips (Mercy Lewis), Nicole Greenberg (as Abigail Williams), Emily Shackelford (as Ann Putnam), Jessica Jensen (as Mary Warren) & Hannah Thompson (as Betty Parris), all give outstanding and well-conceived performances.

Espinosa stands out as the leader and uses a West Indies style dialect to separate her character from the rest. She also uses some well choreographed movement throughout her performance to give Tituba the mystique of being different from all the witches. Yet, she is the reason things get so out of hand with her tales of witches and spells. She is a talented young actress and one to watch.

Phillips adds some color to her character by adding some nervous twitches and facial expression as she struggles to look for what eludes her and haunts her the most . . . love and affection. Her character builds on the actual seeing her family massacred by hostile Indians. She is alone is a closed and stagnant society.

Greenberg provides a kinder Abigail than other versions of the era. She is not evil, but instead on the verge of going to the darker recesses of her persona. Greenberg gives a nice portrayal of a historically evil character.

Shackleford brings Ann Putnam to the stage in a subtle performance that shows a young girl’s desire to be included in a group. She falls quickly into their pact and wants to be seen as a leader. Her character lacks confidence, and Shackleford portrays that with a very subdued performance. As she grows through her diverse castings, nuances to her character development continue to be her performance strength.

Jensen, as Mary Warren, shows just what conflicts plague the mind of young girls as they mature. She struggles with her religious education and her yearning to find acceptance among stronger allies. She teeters as she decides to reluctantly join in and then withdraw to her religious beliefs. Jensen dies a good job of showing the vulnerability of her character’s involvement.

Betty Parris, though not a major part of the play, provides the kindling to ignite the fire in the girls of Salem Village and moves the story forward. Thompson comes across as impetuous and determined to be amongst the “big” girls and play their games. She shows all the characteristics of a younger child trying to connive, cajole, bully, and bribe to get what she wants. Thompson does a solid job in depicting this characteristic of younger children.

In the tradition of the hit feature film, Mean Girls, or the popular television series, Pretty Little Liars, Afflicted: Daughters of Salem provides a fictionalized look inside the peer politics and teen rebellions within the group of young girls and the psychology of leaders and followers.

Following each performance, audience members will have the chance to participate in a unique, post-show forum to delve into the themes of the play, a trademark of Brooks’ plays. The personal resolutions of the play differ for each audience member and asks them to think and reflect on their thoughts of the witches and to also examine their views on reason and forgiveness. The main character and kingpin in the Salem debacle, Tituba, conducts the post show talkback with interactive questions to the audience.

Each witch is given the chance to explain, briefly her situation and ask forgiveness. Before the final audience judgement, audience members respond to Tituba’s questions and the audience answers help determine the level of forgiveness of each witch.

Afflicted: Daughters of Salem tells the story of the Salem girls - Abigail Williams, the leader;
Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren, and Betty Paris - and the crucible of events that led to the contagious Salem Witch Trials,” a press release from the Coterie said. “Amongst the girls, allies are found, promises made and broken, power taken…deep in the woods of Puritan, New England.”

Author Laurie Brooks is a young adult fiction writer and the award-winning playwright behind some of The Coterie's coolest new plays, including The Wrestling Season, The Tangled Web, Atypical Boy, and Selkie: Between Land and Sea. Afflicted: Daughters of Salem is the second of two Coterie commissioned plays written by female playwrights included in the 2013/2014 Season.

The creation of Afflicted grew out of a long-standing relationship between The Coterie’s artistic director, Jeff Church, and playwright Laurie Brooks, who explained how the two collaborated to develop a story that was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials but with a new perspective, a spokesman said.

“Jeff was interested in the teen girls who became the accusers in the Salem Witch Trials. Together we tossed around the idea of an origin story that would examine how the accusations might have begun. We both had a keen interest in how the girls’ relationships and power dynamics played a role. Tons of research and a week of development at Arizona State University led to the performance audiences will experience.”

The Crucible (by Arthur Miller), which most kids read in school, covers the actual trials very well,” playwright Laurie Brooks said. “As a playwright, I have always been fascinated by character, relationships and conflict, so I wanted to explore the group dynamics, the power struggles, and struggle for survival of these girls in a world where danger is a huge part of
their everyday life.”

Miller’s The Crucible used historic documents and actual testimony from the trials to establish one of the hardest hitting looks into the time, society, and Salem Witches. Afflicted: Daughters of Salem does not include much substantiated documentation and relies of entertainment and interest value. The show is definitely worthy to see and appreciate, but should not be taken as more than face value. It displays the theme of a closed society in Puritan New England and helps viewers understand the pressures of children and the suppression of their inquisitive natures and dabbling into the unknown. What was typical then continues to be typical now. Children push boundaries and explore limits.

Produced as part of The Coterie Sparks series, Afflicted: Daughters of Salem will be best
appreciated by ages 10 years old through adult. The production is funded in part by the National
Endowment for the Arts, Missouri Arts Council, the ArtsKC Fund, and Theater League.

The cast of Afflicted: Daughters of Salem features Emily Shackelford (as Ann Putnam), as well as UMKC graduate acting students Nicole Greenberg (as Abigail Williams), Emily Nan Phillips (as Mercy Lewis), Jessica Jensen (as Mary Warren), Alisha Espinosa (as Tituba), and Logan Black (as Voice of Reverend Parris). The cast also features young professional actor, Hannah Thompson (as Betty Paris).

The artistic and production company consists of Laurie Brooks (playwright), Jeff Church (director), Jeff Ridenour (set designer), Kristopher Kirkwood (lighting designer), Tyler Wilson (costume designer), Sarah Putts (sound designer), Bret Engle (properties), William J. Christie (production stage manager), Kaleb Krahn (UMKC technical director), Scott Hobart (Coterie technical director), Erika Bailey (dialect coach), Jennifer Martin (movement consultant), and Kelsey Brennan (production assistant).