Review: “Who Killed John Bell?

This is a review of the August 25, 2022 performance of “Who Killed John Bell,” by the Murfreesboro Little Theatre in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

NOTE: I am not a professional theatre critic. This review is only my opinion. If you don’t have time to read the lengthy review that follows, the “short version” is that there were several awesome things about this play, but the story line–its heart–fell short in several ways, making the final product a big disappointment. Not recommended.

This is a hard review to write in terms of perspective. As most know, I wear THREE hats–a storyteller, a serious researcher, and a big fan of ghost stories. I wear them separately at different times. They are even contradictory in some ways. Right now, I am putting on all three hats and sharing my thoughts with you.

I think the Murfreesboro Little Theatre did an awesome job of organizing and putting on the play, which will also be performed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, August 26-28. The set was very basic, which is good, because it allows the audience to focus more on the actors and the story.

Casting was great for all but a couple roles, but that wasn’t problematic because the production rarely followed established, historical records to begin with. The acting was excellent; kudos to the actors for their hard work and dedication. I only wish that the story had placed the actors in a Bell Witch production that adds value to the legend and moves the case forward, rather than what amounted to a two-hour-long character assassination of John Bell that made even the “An American Haunting” fiasco look like a John Bell praise club.

Scene after scene, the production portrayed Bell as an evil, hot-tempered, child-hitting, cheating, and devious man who would give even “Ol’ Lucifer” a run for his money. As anyone familiar with the real legend knows, Bell had business disputes with two other men in the community (including Kate Batts’ brother-in-law) but was also one of the area’s most well-loved and respected men. His wife, Lucy Bell, who was thought to be a strong yet humble woman, also was portrayed grossly out of character by the story. The actor herself did a marvelous job, however.

On a positive note, although I loved all of the acting (but just not the storyline), my favorites were the two females in long dresses who portrayed the spirit. Their manner of dress and makeup, along with how they seemingly “floated” around the stage like supernatural entities would, was spot-on. Perfect. I also really liked the Richard Powell character. He had the look, and based on many years of researching Powell, I think his lines were likely what the real Powell said, although the real Powell’s demeanor was happy-go-lucky and not so stern. At any rate, I loved Powell’s character, and the actor did a great job–as did all the actors.

Research for the play was interesting. Their researchers knocked the ball out of the park with several little-known, obscure facts that figure prominently into the legend. However, they ignored, and in some cases grossly misstated, some of the legend’s most basic facts, and in one case adopted a side theory–and ran with it for most of the play–that was debunked by historical records over twenty years ago. One can’t expect to have a credible Bell Witch play, book, or other account when old, worn-out, and previously debunked theories are rehashed.

This easily could have been one of the best Bell Witch productions ever to hit a stage. All of the elements, but one, were present. Creative license is a wonderful thing, and I encourage and appreciate it. I love hearing and learning about new perspectives on the Bell Witch legend. However, when creative license entails painting an unwarranted, negative, and unrealistic picture of a person who is no longer around to defend himself, or ignoring or misstating readily available historical records, it is in bad taste and goes too far. The party’s over.

This isn’t the first such production, nor will it be the last, but at least the other negative productions–even An American Haunting–made an effort to bring in researchers to narrate, comment, and/or answer audience questions so that the full scenario (folktale, assumptions, facts, factoids, scandals, and possible theories) could be put into proper context and perspective. That did not happen here, which made the story line and context hard to understand. Continuity and transitions could have been better.

I don’t know about the play’s ending and the revelation of who killed Mr. Bell, as I had already left by them. But suffice it to say, the play itself did a pretty darn good job of killing John Bell, reputation-wise.

If you are looking for a quick paranormal fix that’s based on an old, scandalous Tennessee folktale, and don’t care about the historical or fact vs. fiction aspects, I recommend that you see this play. For all others: NOT recommended.