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'Elephant's Graveyard' director takes photo road trip

Augustana student Emily Mason, who will play the Trainer in "Elephant's Graveyard," stands along train tracks in Fruitland, Iowa.

ROCK ISLAND — Augustana College senior Debo Balogun is using a creative way to draw anticipation for his directorial debut, "Elephant's Graveyard," in May.

The roughly 600 followers of his Elephant Project on social media are receiving mysterious bi-weekly, sepia-toned photos. They represent a road trip to towns along the Mississippi River, making its way to Davenport, where the tragedy-laced drama will bow at the Village Theatre during two weekends May 5-14.

"I wanted the promotion to be part of the story as well," Mr. Balogun said recently, crediting the concept to Melissa Conway (a sophomore creative writing and computer science major), who took the photos and is marketing the production. "I wanted it to draw the audience in, in a way that's tied to the story. You're getting closer, like a traveling circus getting into town."

"Elephant's Graveyard" — as the director has described it — is the true story of a tiny town in Tennessee visited by a traveling circus in September 1916. A murder occurs in front of the entire town. "Tensions rise. Bloodlust poisons the air. Justice is demanded. We see humanity's craving for spectacle and violence explored in such a way that is poetic and devastating," the play's Facebook page says.

During a parade in Kingsport, Tenn., to keep an elephant (named Mary) moving, an inexperienced trainer jabbed the animal and hit an abscessed tooth. In pain, Mary flung him to the ground and stomped on his head, killing him. One shocked spectator shot Mary with a pistol, to little effect. Townspeople screamed for revenge, and the circus owner agreed to kill the elephant, at a public hanging.

In the new photos (released every two weeks), Augie sophomore Emily Mason (who plays the trainer) is pictured in Keithsburg, Ill., Joy, Ill., and Fruitland, Iowa. The next will be Rock Island, and last Davenport, Mr. Balogun said.

In addition to Facebook, he's using them on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, totaling about 600 followers. Most of his 15-member cast are Augie students.

The characters (who deliver monologues) can be played by male or female, since they have generic names, such as the Ringmaster, the Clown and the Townsperson, Mr. Balogun said. It is the first play he acted in, at a Chicago high school.

"Performing in that show, I had never felt more alive. From that moment on I was hooked," the theater major said. Mr. Balogun played the title role in Shakespeare's "Othello" this past October at Augie's new theater, in the Brunner Theatre Center.

"Elephant's Graveyard" (which premiered in 2007) couldn't be more timely, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end its 146-year run of "The Greatest Show on Earth" with final shows in Providence, R.I., on May 7, and Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21.

The decision to end circus tours came as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales, making the circus an unsustainable business, according to Feld Entertainment, its parent company. Following the transition of the elephants off the circus, the company saw a drop in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated, it said.

In March 2015, Feld Entertainment announced it would remove Asian elephants from traveling circus performances. Their controversial use was protested for many years, mainly by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

"I think people are definitely still interested in this concept of spectacle, which is one of the things we're trying to touch on in this production of the show," Mr. Balogun said. "It seems to be this uniquely American obsession with spectacle, no matter what the cost.

"It seems we value that kind of entertainment over any type of humane treatment," he said. "We're willing to put people and animals on the line. We're willing to put them in harm's way, for the sake of achieving that heightened adrenaline rush."

"The incorporation of animals, including elephants, in the circus is something that was toeing the line of being eradicated for a while now, because of the fact that animals weren't meant to be this vehicle for spectacle, for entertainment," Mr. Balogun said. "You can't expect them to consistently behave the way you want them to, which I think is one of the issues that played into hanging the elephant in 1916."

He said he never saw the circus, growing up in Chicago. "I was a pretty sheltered child," he said. Through theater, Mr. Balogun said he's grown immensely as a person — much more bold and confident now, and comfortable "with my place creatively, and in the world."

And he's not mirroring his "Elephant's Graveyard" production from when he was a teen.

"If I were to recreate that, it wouldn't be my work," Mr. Balogun said. "It would be a regurgitation of something I was fed. I want this, being my directorial debut, to carry my unique stamp. Especially because I was a much different person back then, than I am now."

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