The Gifts
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The Gifts

Ellis Ruley, a successful artist and a gentle, religious, African American man, is found dead near his home, winter of 1959. Civil Rights issues.

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The Gifts

Ellis Ruley, a successful artist, and a gentle, religious, African American man, is found dead near his home in the winter of 1959. A local police officer joins forces with a museum curator to learn the shocking truth about Ellis’ death.

Author:    Joyce Back

Author:    Ellen Kellie


     ‘The Gifts’ is based on the life and death of Ellis Ruley, a successful artist and a gentle, religious, African American man, who lived and worked in Norwich, Connecticut, until 1959, when he was found dead in the street near his home. He was 70 years old. When the story opens, the local police have dismissed Ellis’ death as an accident, but Detective Donald Goley, who was Ellis’ friend, is not convinced and begins an investigation. 
     Don joins forces with museum curator Eva Stone to learn the truth about Ellis’ death. As the shocking and painful details unfold, another story emerges, one of love, commitment, and courage. Don and Eva learn more than the story of a terrible crime; they learn to give and receive love and face their own fears.

The Gifts

The Gifts

Based on the life of Norwich Artist Ellis Ruley


Joyce Back


Ellen Kellie

The Gifts Copyright 2008


Joyce Back and Ellen Kellie

All Rights Reserved

CAUTION: Professionals and amateurs are hereby warned that THE GIFTS is subject to a royalty.  It is fully protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America, the British Commonwealth, including Canada, and all other countries of the Copyright Union.  All rights, including professional, amateur, motion picture, recitation, lecturing, public reading, radio broadcasting, television, and the rights of translation into foreign language are strictly reserved. 

The amateur live stage performance rights to THE GIFTS are controlled exclusively by Drama Source and royalty arrangements and licenses must be secured well in advance of presentation.  PLEASE NOTE that amateur royalty fees are set upon application in accordance with your producing circumstances.  When applying for a royalty quotation and license please give us the number of performances intended and dates of production.  Royalties are payable one week before the opening performance of the play to Drama Source Co., 1588 E. 361 N., St. Anthony, Idaho 83445, unless other arrangements are made. 

Royalty of the required amount must be paid whether the play is presented for charity or gain, and whether or not admission is charged.  For all other rights than those stipulated above, apply to Drama Source Company, 1588 E. 361 N. St. Anthony, Idaho 83445.

Copying from this book in whole or in part is strictly forbidden by law, and the right of performance is not transferable.

Whenever the play is produced, the following notice must appear on all programs, printing and advertising for the play, “Produced by special arrangement with Drama Source Co.”

Due authorship credit must be given on all programs, printing and advertising for the play.

No one shall commit or authorize any act or omission by which the copyright or the rights to copyright of this play may be impaired.

No one shall make changes in this play for the purpose of production without written permission.

Publication of this play does not imply availability for performance.    Both amateurs and professionals considering a production are strongly advised in their own interests to apply to Drama Source Company for written permission before starting rehearsals, advertising, or booking a theatre.

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, now known or yet to be invented, including mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, videotaping or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Our sincere thanks go to the following critical readers for their outstanding assistance with this play:  Mary Budzik, Tracy Citron, Leigh Cremin, Michael Graham, Christine Hammond, Deb LeCompte, William Lopez, Jacqueline Martin, and Todd Minor.

Note 1:  The actors playing Buddy Croft and Donald Goley can also portray the murderers in Act 1, Scene 1.  They will be masked.

Note 2:  Ethnicity is an important part of the story.  Ellis, Marion, and Gladys should be played by African-American actors.  Buddy Croft and Willa Croft Ruley should be Caucasian.  Donald Goley and Eva Stone can be any ethnicity.

Cast of Characters:

Ellis Ruley – an artist living and working in Norwich, Connecticut, in the 1950’s; his age will vary from adult to elderly man.  (He also appears as the spirit of the deceased Ellis.) 

Marion Ruley – Ellis’ daughter; her age will vary from teenager to middle-aged woman.

Willa Croft Ruley – Buddy’s sister and Ellis’ wife; her age will vary from young woman to old woman.  (She also appears as the spirit of the deceased Willa.) 

Buddy Croft – Ellis’ neighbor; his age will vary from middle-aged man to                          vigorous old man.

Donald Goley – A police detective, age about 30.

Eva Stone – The curator of an art museum, age about 30.

Gladys Harris – Marion’s daughter; her age is about 23 in the “present,” but in her flashback scene she is about 13. 

Set: All scenes are played in the Ruley home or just outside the home.


The “present” is 1952, so the costumes need to reflect the time period. That would mean full, shirtwaist dresses or fitted suits for women and loose trousers and fedora hats for men.  Men should have very short hair, and women should have long hair styled in a bun, shoulder-length hair styled in a flip, or short hair styled in a bubble.

Part of the story takes place in the winter, so all characters should have winter coats. Sound Effects

· Sound of thunder and rain

· A drum playing a marching beat

Prop List

· A stone large enough to be a dangerous weapon, but small enough to be held in a hand

· A KKK “lapel pin” (a metal object about the size of a coin; the audience won’t be able to see it so it doesn’t need to have KKK engraved on it)

· A flashlight

· An armchair

· A straight chair

· One or two small occasional tables

· An old trunk

· An easel

· Three or four pre-stretched art canvases

· A hand-held art palette

· A framed imitation of Ruley’s painting ‘Adam and Eve’

· A blanket or afghan

· A police badge

· A large hammer

· Two aprons

· A newspaper and book or knitting/sewing materials for Act 1, Scene 6 (director’s choice)

· Several containers made of metal and/or glass

· A cart or wagon

· Fifties style purses for Marion, Gladys, and Eva

· A pitcher and drinking glass

· One or two suitcases

· An empty gasoline can


Scene 1

The time is “present” (1950’s.)

The sound of a man singing a hymn is heard from offstage. The stage is dark.

Enter Ellis Ruley, made up to be elderly.  He is lighted only faintly, and the rear of the stage cannot be seen.  Ellis stands at stage center and sings his hymn with head bowed, and then he drops to his knees in prayer.

Ellis: Dear Lord, spare my Willa, spare my Willa.

Two men wearing masks run onstage.  They seize Ellis and throw him to the ground.  One of them strikes Ellis’ head with a rock, and then the men run offstage.

Ellis groans and tries to move.  He crawls forward but then collapses.

Enter Marion, dressed and made up as a middle-aged woman.  She is carrying a flashlight.

Marion: Who’s there?  Who’s there?  (to herself)  I hear somebody running.  I’m frightened, I’m frightened.

Looking about, Marion moves fearfully across the stage.  She is a timid, frightened woman, made so by the experiences of her life.

Marion: Daddy, are you out here?

Marion sees Ellis.

Marion: Daddy!  Daddy!

Marion flings herself upon her father’s body and tries to shake him awake.  She sees a small shiny object next to the body.

Marion: (looking at the object)  Oh no, not that, not that.

Marion puts the shiny object in her pocket and collapses in tears on her father’s body.

Scene 2

The set is the inside of the Ruley home.  The set should contain a “wall” on which a painting is hanging, a depiction of Adam and Eve.  There are some pieces of furniture:  an armchair, a few tables, an old trunk, and a straight chair.  On one side of the room an easel is standing.

At rise or lights-up, Don Goley is in the room.  He is dressed in a suit and tie.  He looks at the painting and then sits on the straight chair.

Don rises respectfully as Marion (middle-aged) enters.  At this time of her life, she is no longer the joyous girl she once was.  She is fearful and hesitant.

Don: (in a kind voice)  Marion, I just heard…I came right away.

Marion: My daddy’s gone, Mr. Goley.  My daddy’s gone to heaven.

Don: I’m so sorry for your loss, Marion.

Marion: Thank you.  (crying)

Don: Marion, your stepmother’s still in the hospital, so you were the only person here last night.  Did you hear anything, or see anything?  Anything unusual?

Marion: (looking down and shifting nervously)  No sir.  Nothing.

Don studies her, frowning.

Don: Marion, we’ve been friends for a long time.  Can’t you call me Don?

Marion: No, sir.

Don: (sighs)  Are you sure you didn’t see anyone last night?  If somebody hurt Ellis, you’d need to tell me so I can find him and see that he’s punished.

Marion: (aside)  But then they’d hurt me.  Like they hurt Douglas.

Don: What?  What did you say?

Marion: Nothing.  I didn’t say anything.  And I didn’t see anything.  (starts to cry again)

Don walks about the room, examining the painting and thinking.  He turns to Marion.

Don: Marion, the police that came here last night say Ellis fell down drunk and hit his head.  But he wasn’t a drinking man.

Marion: No sir.

Don looks exasperated.  He studies her, but she refuses to look at him.

Don: Do you think somebody could have pushed him down?

Marion: No sir.  I don’t think anything of the kind.

Don sighs.  He heads for the door.

Don: All right, Marion, have it your way.  But I’m going to find out who did this.

Enter Eva Stone.  Don Goley looks at her in obvious admiration, but she doesn’t notice.

Eva: Marion!  I came as soon as I could!

Eva embraces Marion.  Gradually she notices Don and turns toward him.  He shows his badge and starts to speak, but she interrupts him.

Eva: Ah, a detective.  Here to sweep yet another murder under the rug, no doubt.

Don: Detective Don Goley, ma’am.  I’m not here to sweep anything under the rug, I can assure you.  May I ask what your connection to the Ruley family is?

Eva: I am Eva Stone, the curator of the Slater Museum.  We had the honor of purchasing some of Mr. Ruley’s early paintings.  I consider myself to be Ellis’ friend, and Marion’s also.

Don: A pleasure to meet you, Miss Stone.  I’ve heard of you.  (he hesitates)  Er…I knew the museum had some of Ellis’ paintings, but I never heard Ellis mention you as a friend.

Eva: Ellis Ruley and I had a common interest – art.  I doubt if art is part of your world, Detective Goldie.  (She turns to Marion.)  Are you ready to go, dear?

Marion: I’ll get my coat.  Can you go into the funeral home with me?  It will be so hard…

Eva: Of course…of course.

Don: The name is Goley, ma’am.  Don Goley.  (Don turns to Marion.)  Marion, if you change your mind about talking to me, you know where to find me.  (Marion exits.)  Miss Stone, she said something I didn’t understand.  She said if she talked to me, she’d be hurt, like Douglas.  Do you know what she meant?

Eva: Yes, I do.  Ten years ago, Marion’s husband Douglas was murdered.  Marion found him herself.  His body was protruding from a well, and he had drowned.

Don: Ten years ago…before my time on the force.  Was it an accident?

Eva: An accident!  The opening of the well was eight inches wide!

Don: You obviously think it was homicide…but…could it have been suicide?

Eva: Marion and Ellis both said that Douglas was not the kind of man to kill himself.  He loved his family.  He had a happy nature.

Don: I guess I don’t have to ask if an arrest was made in the case.

Eva: An arrest!  Be serious, detective.  The police concluded that Douglas had fallen into the well…a well with an opening eight inches wide!

Don: Okay, that explains your remark about sweeping things under the rug.  But keep in mind that the police need evidence in order to make an arrest.  If there’s no evidence, their hands are tied.

Eva: Yes, I realize that, but you can’t deny that there’s a reluctance to investigate crimes against black Americans!

Don: I can’t fix what happened ten years ago, but I can assure you that Ellis Ruley’s death will be investigated – fully investigated.

Eva: If you’re sincere about finding Ellis’ murderer, Detective Goldfish, you’ll start talking to Buddy Croft!

Don: That’s Goley, ma’am.  And I’ll take your advice.  (Marion enters.)  I’ll be in touch, Marion.  Nice meeting you, Miss Rock.

Don exits.

Scene 3

Enter Marion, helping Willa, who is walking slowly.

Marion: Here now, Willa, you sit in Daddy’s chair.  It will be like his arms are around you and he’s still here.  (Marion helps Willa into the easy chair.)

Willa: I can’t believe he’s gone…

Marion: I know, I know.  But he’d want you to get well, wouldn’t he?  He’d want you happy and singing again, like in the old days.  Remember the old days, Willa?

Willa: Yes…of course…

Marion: Remember that day in the garden?  I was a tiny little girl so I don’t remember, but you’ve told me the story so many times…

Willa: Oh, Marion, if I close my eyes, I can see him as he was then.  I can see the flowers and birds, and I can feel the warm spring breeze…

Flashback scene is next.  The rear stage darkens, and only stage front is lighted.  Ellis, in his young adult clothes and makeup, enters, carrying an easel and palette.  He sets up the easel and looks around smiling.  Meanwhile Willa is backstage making a quick transformation into her young adult version.

Ellis: (joyfully)  Blessed God, the beauty you have placed upon the earth!

Ellis takes up a brush and begins to sketch out the plan of a painting on the fresh canvas.  He sings a hymn as he works.

Enter Willa in her young adult clothes and makeup.  She walks quietly up to Ellis and puts her hands on his shoulders from behind.  He jumps.

Ellis: Willa!  Are you wanting to scare me to death?  I’m trying to paint.

Willa: Ellis, you paint too much.  You don’t have time for fun anymore.

Ellis: I HAVE to paint.

Willa: Why?

Ellis: I don’t know.  When a picture gets in my brain, I can’t get it out except by painting it.

Willa: Old Mrs. Percy said you have a gift.

Ellis: Did she now?  And what made her say that?

Willa: When she babysat Marion, she saw your pictures hanging on the wall in your house.  She said, ‘that Ellis Ruley has a gift from God.’

Ellis: (thoughtfully)  If I have a gift from God, I better make sure I don’t waste it.

Willa: What do you mean?

Ellis: I’m a religious man, Willa.  It wouldn’t be my way to throw a gift back to God…a gift He thought fit to bestow on me.

Willa: Gifts come in different forms, Ellis.  Maybe there’s another gift you could have, but you just don’t know it.

Ellis: Well, if God wants me to have it, Willa, He’ll show it to me in his own time.

Willa: (changing tactics)  I wish I could see the pictures hanging on the walls in your house, Ellis.

Ellis: Willa, you can’t come in my house.  You’re a white girl, and I’m a black man.  Besides, a lady doesn’t visit a bachelor gentleman in his quarters.

Willa: Oh, don’t be so old-fashioned!  Marion’s home, so we wouldn’t be alone.

Ellis: And what about your brother?  If Buddy knew you were over here, he’d be furious!

Willa: Buddy doesn’t own me!

Ellis: You could have fooled me.  Now get away from me.  Go home.

Willa: Don’t say that to me!

Ellis: Don’t say what to you?

Willa: Don’t tell me to get away from you!  Don’t ever tell me that!

Ellis looks at her and sighs.  He puts his arms around her.

Ellis: I’m sorry…I’m sorry.

Willa: Don’t ever push me away, Ellis.  Please…

Ellis: Willa, we can’t be together.  Your brother…

Willa: Ellis, please…

Ellis: (Ellis takes her by the shoulders and holds her away from him.)  Listen to me, Willa.  If Buddy is looking out a window right now, I’m a dead man.  Is that what you want to happen?  If he knew that we…liked each other…  If he knew, Willa, he’d kill me… or he’d beat you up again, like he did before, and then…then…I’d have to kill HIM!

Willa: Ellis, no, don’t talk like that!

Ellis: I can’t get into fights with white men!  If they don’t kill me, a jury will hang me.  Then what happens to Marion?  Can’t you see the danger?  Can’t you see it?

Willa: (tenderly)  Ellis, I can’t see danger when I’m so blinded by love.  (Ellis abruptly walks away from her.)  We can be together if we’re both brave and stand fast against…Buddy…and…anyone else who…

Ellis: (angrily)  Do you want to live here with me, Willa?  Do you want to marry me?  That’s just fine!  Then every time you walk to the market, someone will spit in the street…someone will call you a name…!  Is that what you want, Willa?

Willa: No!  I don’t want that!  But can I bear it so that we can spend our lives together?  Yes, Ellis!  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!

Ellis: (sinks down to his knees)  Dear Lord, tell me the right thing to do…

Willa: (kneels beside him)  Dear Lord, give us the strength to bear what we must.

They both bow their heads in prayer.  Suddenly there is a crack of thunder, and they look at each other and laugh.  Ellis reaches out and touches her face.

Ellis: Willa, I do love you.  You know that, don’t you?

Willa: I thought I did, but since Buddy got mad that time, you’ve been cold to me.

Ellis: Not because I don’t love you…because I DO love you.

Willa: If you love me, marry me.  I’ll be a good wife and a good mother to Marion.

Ellis: Willa, you’re young, you don’t know how mean people can be.

Willa: Ellis, are you going to throw me back to God?

Ellis: What?

Willa: Maybe I’m a gift that God wants you to have.

Ellis: (laughing)  If so, I wish the lord had wrapped you in a black package!  (Ellis jumps to his feet and pulls Willa up.)  Come on, we’re going to get wet!

Willa: (not laughing)  I can’t change my wrapping, so you’re going to have to marry me as I am.

Ellis takes her in his arms.

Ellis: (tenderly)  For better or worse?  And there’s gonna be a lot of worse.

Willa: For better or worse…(she hesitates)…because together we’re somehow better than each of us is apart.

Ellis: What do you mean?

Willa: I’m not sure…when I’m with you, I feel like I could conquer the world.  But when I’m away from you, I’m just a silly, scared girl.

Ellis: Yeah, I guess I feel the same.  If we’re together, we’re strong…we’re better.

Willa: Together we can face anything.

Ellis drops to his knees and takes her hands in his.

Ellis: Willa Croft, will you be my wife?

Willa: I will.

Ellis rises.  They embrace and then walk hand in hand off-stage.

Scene 4

At rise or lights up, Willa (old) is sitting in Ellis’ chair.  She appears to be asleep.  Marion (middle-aged) enters and walks to Willa.  She adjusts her shawl or blanket and kisses the top of her head.  Marion then steps to stage front as if going outside for a breath of air.  She looks about.

Marion: Are you there, Daddy?  Are you there in your spirit form, hiding behind that old, gnarled cedar tree?  Or floating in that mist over the shed?  Are you there?

Buddy Croft (old) enters.

Buddy: Talkin’ to yourself again?  You’re as crazy as your pa!

Marion shrinks back in terror then tries to run backstage.  Buddy grabs her arm.

Marion: Let me go!

Buddy: I want to see my sister!  (Buddy thrusts Marion aside and approaches Willa’s chair.)  Willa, wake up!  I got a bone to pick with you!

Marion: Leave her alone!

Buddy: Shut up!  (He shakes Willa’s shoulder, and she opens her eyes.)  You think I don’t know what you been doing, Willa?  Keep it up and you’ll be as dead as your husband!

Enter Don Goley.

The Gifts

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