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A chunk of watermelon lying on the side of the road was the linchpin that started a tragic chain of events for a traveling circus, the story of which is revisited with College of Southern Maryland’s retelling of “Elephant’s Graveyard.”

The play will be performed by CSM’s Cause Theatre Feb. 20 to March 1 at the La Plata campus.

“I read the show, and I’m like, ‘I really need to do it’ because it’s a very powerful show,” director Keith Hight said following a dress rehearsal Feb. 11. “Everyone was like, ‘We want to do it but how?’ It was fun to watch tonight. It was emotional to watch tonight. I think this is like a ... four-pack [of Kleenex thing], but it doesn’t hit you until the end, and then you get really slapped.”

The play is based on a true story about unfortunate events that befell the Sparks Circus while performing in the Tennessee town of Erwin.

“I liked how much emotion there was and how much emotion we had to show,” said 12-year-old Hannah Credno, who attends Milton M. Somers Middle School and plays Erwin resident Abigail Jackson. “I liked the story, and that it was real. After I got cast I looked [the story] up, and it was really interesting, and it was horrifying.”

The cast is made up of 18 actors between the ages of 6 and 26.

“Five years ago when I came here, we would not have been able to do the show,” Hight said. “[But] the actors have grown tremendously. I’m very proud of them. They work well together, and they’re all clicking.”

The world-famous Sparks Circus is clicking, as well. It’s 1916, and the circus has just paid $8,000 for a female elephant named Mary — “When you get an opportunity like that, you don’t ask questions” — who is guaranteed to appear at every performance. But Mary is more than just a performer.

“An elephant is an investment,” says ringmaster Charlie Sparks, played by CSM theater major Jeremy Hunter. “You have your strongman and your trained seals, but an elephant is your bread and butter.”

Elephants also play follow the leader behind the biggest female, and that is crucial during parades through town before performances.

“The only thing better than an elephant parade is being in an elephant parade,” Sparks says, “and the only thing better than being in an elephant parade is leading an elephant parade.”

Riding the lead elephant in a parade is coveted by many people, and one of those is Red, who comes out of the shadows one night staring not at the beautiful ballet girl (Alexis Miller), but at Mary. Red (a grown man living a kid’s dream) wants to join the circus, but he’s not interested in being an assistant or a performer but an animal handler, specifically Mary’s handler.

“Red is new. He comes in and whoops, and hollers, ‘I want to ride an elephant,” Sparks says. “No big deal, it’s just riding an elephant. I don’t know the complexities of it, so it’s not a big deal to me, so just let him ride the freaking elephant, and we’ll keep going.”

It isn’t a big deal because Spark’s thoughts are on Erwin and the money he’ll make there because the small town hasn’t hosted a circus in years.

“They’re dying for popcorn and pink lemonade,” he says, “and whatever we can shove in their faces.”

But Red does ride Mary in the parade when the circus arrives, and everything goes well, at least until Mary spots that chunk of melon. One thing leads to another, and the townspeople reach a controversial decision.

“It’s a very small town, so they don’t have a lot of communication or experience,” said Apryl Wilson, 19, who plays an Erwin resident. “It’s their town, so it’s their thoughts that matter. It’s their world, and they have their rules for their world.”

“All the townspeople are excited because this has never happened before, and they’re going to be in the history books,” said Credno, who has previously acted in CSM’s “The Clumsy Custard” and “Anansi.”

Sparks is forced to accept what the townspeople decide, in large part to save the circus’ reputation.

“My dream is to have this wonderful circus because my father’s dream was to have a great circus, so this is a means to an end,” Hunter said of his character Sparks. “It’s a step back. It’s damage control. It’s the right thing to do financially because if word spreads that this is a fiasco and a debacle, it’s just a matter of time [before the circus fizzles out].”

Circus strongman Wilhelm Hartmann (Cory Bragg) also is upset at the decision, in large part because he believes the circus should take care of the matter internally.

“His whole point is when the ringmaster calls ‘Hey Rube’ the circus comes in and protects their own,” said Bragg, who graduated from CSM in 2010 and is now a dual major at Bowie State University, referring to the circus’ version of family. “His opinion on [Red] is he screwed up. He paid the price. As for the elephant’s fate, the town deciding this is an outrage. Why should anyone else be involved in anything the family’s taking care of?”

But it’s a losing battle, and what later takes place is one of the more strange ways to mete out justice.

The play is accomplished by a narration style instead of one-on-one dialogue and also features no pachyderms.

“I like that because one, we’re not getting a real elephant. That’s not happening, and even a fake elephant is this type of show wouldn’t look good,” Bragg said. “It would take away from the moment. It’s like the Alfred Hitchcock effect, sometimes what you don’t see is stronger than what you could ever see. And I think just our reactions to events and the audience looking into our eyes and seeing what we see is more powerful.”

“[The cast] was wondering, ‘When are we getting the elephant?’ and I’m like, ‘We’re not. I’m not renting an elephant,’” Hight said. “To me it’s scarier [without one] because the audience can make what they think it is. And for those of you that are really into it, you’re going to see [what really happens]. I like it that way. I like the audience to make their own visual clues.”

Bragg said he’s anxious for audiences to see a show that delves much deeper than just a circus that loves its main attraction.

“I fell in love with it the first time I read the script just based on a fact it was a true story and the way it’s written,” he said. “It’s a memory play rather than indirect action, and that makes it difficult for us, but I think it portrays a more powerful message, as well. It’s strong. It’s a strong play.”

mreid@somdnews.com