Elephant's Graveyard

The Westlake High School Theatre Department is ready to tackle the typically college-performed play "Elephant's Graveyard" — the true tale of a traveling circus that stumbled into a gory disaster.

"It's going to be quite an experience," director Kerry Onxley said. "It's about the true story of the only known lynching of an elephant."

He said the play combines historical fact and legend, exploring the deep-seated American craving for spectacle, violence and revenge.

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Kyla Hidalgo, as the Steam Shovel Operator, contemplates the hard life on the road with the circus in “Elephant Graveyard.”

"It also shows how sensitive elephants are because in the wild elephants when they are dying of natural causes, they go away from the heard and die alone," he said. "After a couple of days, loved ones locate them and mourn over them, like we would do a funeral. That's the reason the play is called ‘Elephant's Graveyard.'"

The play is based on the story of Big Mary, one of the elephants featured in the traveling circus Sparks World Famous Shows. While being led to a performance in Erwin, Tenn., her trainer started beating her with his hook after she stopped to reach a discarded watermelon rind on the road. Big Mary is said to have grabbed him, slammed his body onto the ground and stomped on his head, killing him instantly. A mob ensued, calling for justice in the trainer's death. In order to save his circus business, Big Mary's owner had her lynched using a 100-ton crane.

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The authenticity of this photograph of Big Mary's execution is widely disputed (and heavily retouched) but has been historically linked to the original story.

Later that night, a remaining elephant in the show, escaped from his pen and ran to the spot where Big Mary had died to mourn her for several days.

"Elephants have a lot of the same personality traits that humans do, such as the care and feelings they have for each other," Onxley said. "They travel in herds, they stay with their family, most of them stay together over their lifetime and have babies together."

While preparing for the play, he said students attended a performance by the Shriner's Circus and were able to talk to some of the performers.

"We did the research on it and have had some lively discussions and debate on whether elephants should be captive or not because if they weren't, most people would never see them because there are not many left," he said. "This is one show that opened itself up to a lot more lessons than any of the other shows I've done before."

Onxley said Big Mary's death and burial will be portrayed using the language of the script.

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Amber Lover, as Myrtle, Kristopher Reeves, as Ringmaster and Emma Burk, as Preacher, from left, prepare for a performance of “The Elephant’s Graveyard.”

"Language is very poetic, very much like when William Shakespeare would write. They did not have access to very elaborate sets and lighting that we have in today's moderate theater settings so they used very descriptive language and imagery. That is what we will be relying on, too."

The show is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight, Nov. 21, at the high school. Admission is $7.

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