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How a play about Baby Mine, the Iowa State Fair elephant, became a feminist manifesto and a lesson in speaking up


Courtney Crowder   | The Des Moines Register
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A battered, weatherworn statue, its shine eclipsed by a thick layer of dirt and dust, is all that remains of Baby Mine, the legendary elephant once owned by the Iowa State Fair.

The product of an ill-conceived scheme to drum up business for the cash-strapped, Depression-era State Fair and the Des Moines Register and Tribune, Baby Mine was purchased after an ad in the paper enticed schoolchildren to send nickels and dimes to the “elephant editor.”

A nearby broken, warped plaque describes how Iowa’s littlest residents responded with gusto, quickly raising the $3,000 needed to buy the beast and showing up 20,000 strong to give their elephant a hero’s welcome when she made her debut in 1929.

But the sign leaves out how Mine’s made-for-Lifetime story came to a sad, mysterious end. It glosses over how after more than a decade at the fair, she was sold to the circus, changing hands multiple times before eventually becoming the grand prize in a local radio giveaway. And it neglects to say that as quickly as the pachyderm came, she was gone — this time without crowds of children chanting her name.

The plaque and the statue place Mine’s story on ice, frozen in the time when she was “Iowa’s Pride and Joy,” surrendering the less desirable parts of her story to history.

Until this summer.

A tip about what would have been Mine’s 90th birthday led me to research and write the real story of what happened to our favorite tusker — or as much of the real story as we know. Stacy Hansen, a local drama teacher, read my piece and decided that a staged adaption could give Mine the ending she deserved — an ending offering new meaning to her dark life.

The resulting Readers Theater production — a very specific Iowa High School Speech Association term that is most easily understood as a short play — is a retelling of the elephant’s story, sure. But it is also somehow a feminist manifesto that asks audience members to consider whether they are bystanders to injustice, bullying or, frankly, life itself. 

Oh, and a version of me — even portrayed by a red-headed actress — is the narrator.

Let me explain.

First, you have to understand that Iowa high school speech is no joke. Hundreds of kids try out, and the competition is fierce.

The Readers Theater group from West Des Moines Valley performs the story of Mine totally stripped of the costumes, lights and music that mark most plays. Instead, the 15 students set the mood with songs and sound effects they deliver a capella and create fairly elaborate sets by constantly moving and stacking black benches.

Using newspaper stories as the foundation for a Readers Theater production is unique, the speech association director told me. Most schools edit or adapt a piece already written for the stage or the screen or penned with performance in mind.

Hansen’s first wild hair to use a news story as a source came last year when a former student, Logan Benson, wrote a piece on Marjan, an abused lion who survived multiple wars in the Kabul Zoo. That production was well-received, so Hansen set out to find another “real-life story” to use this year, which is where Mine — and I — come in.

In my story, which rehashed the Register’s long-ago reporting, Hansen saw a chance to dramatize what Mine would have been thinking, feeling — and fearing.

“Elephants are capable of strong emotions,” the play reads, foreshadowing a heartbreaking ending. “Elephants exhibit a high degree of mental complexity. Elephants develop long-lasting social bonds.”

With the story selected and the plot agreed upon, Benson got to work writing. The script was constantly evolving, student actors tell me, with new pages coming to them every rehearsal.

The narrating role passed from the Courtney Crowder character, who told the story looking backward in time; to the elephant; to its final spot with Mary Clark, a fictional, intrepid female reporter for the Des Moines Register in 1929 who writes about Mine in her columns.

Throughout the 20-minute piece, we watch the men of the newsroom debate whether Mary should be allowed to cover the story. We watch the men of the fair decide to purchase an elephant, and we see Mine's heralded arrival. 

We watch Mine practice for her demanding show schedule, which in real life saw her perform all around the country. We watch Mine pack earth for new sewer pipes and do more hard labor around the city to earn her keep. We watch Mary ask all the men in charge why  why — they treat their elephant this way.

And, finally, we watch as the men decide to sell Mine just a decade after her arrival.

Action crescendos in the last five minutes as circus manager Eugene Scott comes to cart Mine away. Mirroring what happened in reality, Mine goes on a “rampage,” grabbing Scott with her trunk and tossing him “12 feet across the menagerie.”

“When I play Mine, I have to keep in mind that she didn't know why they were doing this,” said Valley senior Isabella Ksiazak. “I’ll react to emotions or gestures from the other actors, but I have to remember that I can’t understand them, and they can’t understand me.”

The play then imagines Scott whipping the elephant into total submission. Ksiazak, as the elephant, screams while someone in the background adds the whip noise to the man’s gestures. It is, I think, the sound of a soul dying. 

“The other men looked away, but I forced myself to watch,” Mary Clark says. “Someone had to watch. Someone owed it to her.”   

And she watches, until she steps into stop the beating — literally putting herself between the whip and the elephant. Kneeling down to Mine, she says, “I started this column thinking I‘d scold Iowans for not giving Baby Mine the sendoff she deserved, but I realized I am one of those Iowans, too.”  

After rehearsal, Ksiazak and Abby Bishop, the junior who plays Mark Clark, tell me they were first drawn to the fairy-tale qualities of the story; the miracle of an elephant bought by children and brought to Iowa.

But when they spent some time reading between the lines, the story became a catalyst for what they’re dealing with in their lives today: How as young women they will find their place in male-dominated worlds like speech, debate, policy, politics — all the things they’re interested in.

“I spend a lot of the play having that feeling of, like, why won't you listen to me?” Bishop said. “And I think every girl has experienced that at some point in her life. But Mary isn’t only this strong girl in a man’s world, she’s also this girl who is scared and wants to help, but feels like she can't because she is guilty, too.”

Guilt. And fault. When Ksiazak lumbers the stage as Baby Mine, those are the concepts she ponders.

“I found myself thinking a lot about, like, are you speaking up when you know you should?” she said. “Are you not just being that bystander, but, if you know what's right, are you going to actually take that stand?”

Bishop nods, adding that it seems to her society is quick to condemn and slow to turn the finger on itself to ask, “How am I contributing to this?” She’s been trying to do that more since inhabiting Mary Clark.

“What I really get from the story is, you know, you can choose your ending,” she said. “People back then could have acted. They could have chosen a different ending for Mine.”

“So what is your ending going to be?” she asks no one and yet all of us at the same time. “Is it going to be the happy one, or is it going to be the one that people look back on and think, ‘Why didn't someone do something?’”

They got all that from a play about an elephant.

It feels right that this story would come out the same week people in Des Moines are talking about the importance of art in our schools, about whether non-STEM subjects are worth district funds and students’ time.

But the ability to see meaning in another’s story, or to find a deep connection — even with a long-dead elephant — is the empathy we need to cultivate now more than ever. It’s what I try to do here in the pages of the Register, and what Valley students have taken to the next level in their play — which will be performed for the public Saturday as part of the speech association's annual All-State Festival.

You see, art — and creativity in all its forms — is radical. Art opens minds. Art educates. Art heals. Art allows for self-expression. Art sows dissent or shows appreciation. Art creates new worlds and brings alive far-away places and long-dead people. Art offers hope. Art gives people self-worth.  

And sometimes, like in the “Sad, Mysterious Tale of Baby Mine,” art can offer new meanings and, maybe, a new ending.

See 'Baby Mine'

The Valley High School Readers Theater group will perform as part of the Iowa High School Speech Association's All-State Festival at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Scheman Building on Iowa State University's campus. 

Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at ccrowder@dmreg.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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