By the Light is the story of a young man named Joe who leaves home to join the circus. Joe (Michael Irvin Pollard) enters the stage from the back of the house, hawking a homemade elixir – a secret formula with a hint of licorice that will lift you up and calm you down. The story of his time with the circus unfolds in between his sales pitches.
Joe started at the circus, sweeping dung and found his true place caring for Topsy, the elephant. You may be familiar with Topsy – the elephant was put to death in Coney Island on May 28, 1902, for killing a trainer. Joe shares more of the story you might not know: the trainer had been torturing Topsy for quite some time before she took her revenge. Joe and Topsy had a bond of love and trust. He cared for her, and she never harmed him in any way. He witnesses her execution with the utmost grief and horror. Pollard’s stillness as he grieves is a punch in the gut compared to the breezy way he navigates the stage when talking up his elixir.
Topsy’s execution was administered partly with the electric current that Thomas Edison introduced to the world. And Edison sent a crew to record the event as a moving picture. The short black-and-white film clip is played for the audience. (A sensitive content warning is given during the play’s introduction.) It is harrowing to watch. As Topsy’s sad fate unfurls in the play, Joe and Topsy become stand-ins for one another: two creatures who wanted only to find a place they belonged and live out their lives with a feeling of usefulness, companionship and peace.
After Topsy’s death, Joe steals the ringmaster’s coat – the only prop in the show in addition to the case of elixir – and flees to Connecticut, where he starts selling the tonic. The coat is a shiny, cheerful red and highly out of place after what happened. It’s easy to see why Joe began relying on the elixir he sells. Without Topsy, he no longer had a purpose and was wise to a kind of cruelty he hadn’t previously imagined. Joe’s tonic sales are his attempt to “try to cure the bile in the liver that makes people so cruel.” The quiet way Pollard delivers that line, his eyes shining, voice thick with tears, and shoulders stooped, conveys a storm of heartbreak that no amount of shouting or gesture could. Written by Kate McLeod, Pollard tells Joe’s story with such depth of feeling it seems as if he were really there and truly honors Topsy’s memory.
"By the Light"
Written by Kate McLeod
Performed by Michael Irvin Pollard
October 22, 2022
The 13th United Solo Festival
October 4- November 20, 2022
410 West 42nd (btw 9th and 10th Avenue)
STEPHANIE EAGAN is a professional writer based in NJ. A fan of every type of live performance imaginable, from taiko drumming to political performance art, she travels the tri-state area and beyond in search of music, art, theater, and excellent coffee.