18 May 2002: Thompson, Constant Star

Hartford Stage. Tazewell Thompson (author and director). The Life of Ida B. Wells

Thompson’s idea is to have five black actresses impersonate Ida B. Wells by turns: as one of them plays Wells the other four fill other roles, male or female, as the requirements of the scene dictate. In this fashion we are taken on a celebratory tour of a remarkable life lived by a notably courageous and strong-willed woman. The performances are wonderful, and the whole production is a joy to watch, over the two and three-quarter hours that elapse. As a celebration the play is fine and splendid, including the music — much of it out of the southern gospel tradition, choric, and vital. Growing up in Atlanta, I remember, you could hardly turn on the radio without encountering mixed voices, with vibrant piano accompaniment (never organ!) singing “gospel songs.” I thought it was wonderful and loved to listen to it — not for the Christian bedrock faith but for the truly vital music. It was pleasant to be reminded of this early experience of mine by this musically — as in other ways — sophisticated and joyful performance.

Of course, the story of Ida Wells is the story of personal triumph over the forces of racial prejudice, on the part of whites, and of depression and inertia, on the part of African-Americans: a double obstacle. It might not have been inevitable that this play ends up preaching to the choir, but it does all the same. By a rapidly emerging instinctive feeling of being put off, I always know I am in the presence of a concerted effort at polemic, and am resentful of being played upon. It’s the perennial problem raised by the performance of plays with a message: you have to entertain the audience well, or they will leave before your message has had a chance to get through. (Shaw had this problem.) But there is an additional, debilitating complexity about it. In the case of the present work, by and large the only audience that will come to see this play is one that is definitely sympathetic to the views of the author. And so the performance ends up congratulating the audience for being broad-minded and sufficiently free of prejudice to accept the story of Ida Wells as, not only a portrait of a courageous woman, but a lesson in race relations. There are thousands and thousands of Americans who still need such a lesson — but not, of course, us in the audience. We have asserted our superiority to the rank-and-file racist simply by buying a ticket to this play.

This is the complex rhetorical situation. Suppose instead that this was the story of Ida Wells told from the viewpoint of an unreconstructed red-neck racist, a presentation calculated to raise angry feelings against the very prejudice embraced by the play? Would it send this audience (Hartford insurance agents and other well-educated persons) out of the theatre mad enough to try to effect some material improvement in society? That is, what would be the result of construing the story of Wells as an opportunity for agitprop drama in the classic vein of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty? Who knows? And would it matter whether the play was skillfully produced and performed? Probably it would. So, finally, we have a case in which age-old injustice becomes the circumstance, or context, in which a woman with a passion for justice becomes the subject for a life that — at least in the present social climate — becomes oddly skewed by some implicitly sensed audience requirement that that life be shown to us primarily, if not entirely, as an instance of social victimization. Sad. It would seem that, to judge from Thompson’s’s take on the subject, there is no alternative approach to this subject at the present time. Well, just suppose (to return to hypothetical thinking) that this play was performed by an all-white cast. We would have August Wilson breathing down our necks complaining about racist casting in the contemporary theatre. In fact, you can hear Wilson fuming even as it is, advocate as he is for a black theatre for black audiences. Yet he does not forbid performances of his plays for white or mixed audiences. My head begins whirl. He doesn’t tolerate Robert Brustein’s “color-blind” approach to casting black actors in white roles. But in practice, Wilson and Tazewell and all other African-American dramatists and directors seem forced to engage in filling their theaters with “color-blind” audiences. The more you think about it, the more painful the situation turns out to be. (Notes made after the fact, on 3 June 2002.)


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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