For nearly two decades, Columbia theater actor, writer and director Jason Stokes has worked to launch a piece that centers on one of the most sensational incidents in South Carolina history, one that interweaves bloody gunfire, the media and the highest levels of state government.
On Thursday night, Stokes’ work will, at last, make it to the stage.
Stokes’ play “Composure” opens Thursday night at Columbia’s Trustus Theatre on Lady Street. The production is about an infamous 1903 incident in which the co-founder of The State newspaper, N.G. Gonzales, was shot by then-Lt. Gov. James Tillman near the corner of Gervais and Main streets, right across from the State House, in broad daylight.
The men — one an influential newspaperman, the other a political power player — had been in a long-running, public feud. Gonzales, who was shot in the abdomen, died several days after the incident. Tillman, who was the nephew of then-U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman, was later acquitted of the Gonzales killing in a high-profile trial.
With “Composure,” Stokes, who has long been involved with plays at Trustus, examines the days leading up to the shooting, and the sensational trial that followed. Stokes started writing “Composure” almost 20 years ago after seeing a presentation on the Gonzales-Tillman incident. There was much research and refining of the story through the years, and the play was ready to debut back in the summer of 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and delayed the launch.
Now, finally, the drama will play out on the Trustus stage.
“Honestly, my statement has been, until I’m standing on the stage on Thursday, Aug. 11 at 8 o’clock giving a curtain speech, I’m still not going to believe it’s going to happen,” said Stokes, whose day job is working as a media director for the South Carolina Bar Association. “It’s definitely been an interesting roller coaster of a ride.”
As noted in a lengthy history of the incident penned by The State’s John Monk, Gonzales and James Tillman had long been at odds. When Tillman campaigned for governor in 1902 — he ultimately lost the race — Gonzales crusaded against Tillman in editorials, using language that is far harsher than what is seen in today’s newspaper editorials.
Stokes said he set out to create a drama that explores the events that led to that fateful, deadly confrontation between Tillman and Gonzales on the corner of Gervais and Main.
“To just focus only on the murder itself, and then on the ensuing trial, just wasn’t interesting to me,” Stokes said. “There had to be a reason. There had to be a ‘why’ the murder occurred. And that became more interesting to me, to try to figure out the ‘why,’ and the powerful families that were involved.
“Once I hit on the idea to begin (the script) with the murder, and then get us into the trial and let the testimony be flashbacks to what incidents led to the event, that’s when it really kind of took off.”
Stokes noted the incredible nature of the affair — imagine the outcry today if an active lieutenant governor shot a prominent media personality on the busiest street in town — was simply aching to be told on stage.
“The sensationalism of having a sitting lieutenant governor finish a session of Senate, and then murder somebody in broad daylight is a crazy story by itself,” Stokes said. “But then when you add that it was the founder of a newspaper that was and still is important to the state, the layers involved with the power involved on both sides was just incredible in addition to the murder itself.”
The State paper was founded by Gonzales and his brothers in 1891, and the family’s heirs sold it to Knight Ridder in the 1980s. It is now owned by the McClatchy Company. The newspaper was not involved in the production of “Composure.”
“Composure” has showtimes at Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St., on Aug. 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, 25 and 27. For ticket information, visit trustus.org/event/true-crime-rep/.