DU BOIS AND MISS OVINGTON Theater Review
One of the wonderful things about the page, stage and screen is how they can introduce us to historical figures and eras, often long ago and far away. This week is your last chance to spend an evening with W.E.B. Du Bois (Ben Guillory) – or as close as one can get to meeting this Civil Rights giant more than a half century after his death (Roy Wilkens announced Du Bois’ demise during 1963’s famed “March on Washington”). And at its best, witnessing the West Coast premiere of Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington in the intimate setting of the Los Angeles Theatre Centre complex’s Theatre 4 is like being in the presence and company of the brilliant (he was the first Black to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard) anti-racist leader (circa 1900 Du Bois and Booker T. Washington were the most prominent African Americans) and author of the 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk and the pacifist, suffragette and socialist Mary White Ovington (Melanie Cruz, who appeared in productions such as the HBO series Big Love).
They were among the founders of what is now known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and playwright Clare Coss’ drama finds them, copacetically, alone in the Manhattan NAACP office (very realistically wrought by veteran set designer Thomas Meleck) on a Sunday. There, Ovington tries to talk Du Bois out of resigning as editor of the NAACP’s newspaper, The Crisis, because he feels slighted by white board members’ condescending (mis)treatment of him – even in an organization dedicated to equality.
Their conversation runs the gamut, from NAACP strategy to lynching to socialism to voting rights to racism to gender inequality and inevitably to their personal feelings for one another. Early on, there is a sexual frisson between the characters leading viewers to ponder: Will the man who declared “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line” be able to cross that line and consummate the love that exists between the Black Du Bois and the Caucasian Ms. Ovington?
The thesps excel at dramatizing the personal and the political in this two-acter. Epitomizing the notion of the “talented tenth,” Du Bois was a bit of a dandy, and down to his stylish goatee, antennae-like mustache and spats, the nattily clad Guillory (who also directed) captures this aspect of his lofty subject, well-garbed by costume designer Naila A. Sanders. Guillory, the Robey Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director, also delves beneath Du Bois’ debonair persona to reveal the seething soul within, a genius who is a Gulliver, entrapped by hordes of racist Lilliputians. Speaking of Gullivers, despite Guillery’s height he’s convincing as the more diminutive Du Bois.
Ms. Cruz also admirably acquits herself as Ovington. While Du Bois rages against racism, she likewise rails against sexism and reminds her comrade-in-arms that while he is subjected to racial discrimination, as a male he at least has the right to vote in 1915 America. (We know that’s the year Coss’ probably imagined tete-a-tete is set because there are several references to NAACP protests against screenings of D.W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation, which was unleashed in 1915.) In this way, the canny, insightful dramatist poses a point that dogged the anti-racism and anti-sexism movements since at least the days of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, which sometimes saw Black males competing with white females over the franchise and other rights.
Since race is at the core of this play its casting seems worth noting: While Ovington is identified as being Caucasian, in her rap song Built Like a Botticelli Cruz identifies herself as, “a white Hispanic girl with booty to match.”
In any case, the intellects and free spirits of Du Bois and Ovington are confined by the prejudices of their repressive ages, which enhances their mutual admiration of – and attraction to – one another. I suppose this is one of those plays where, using poetic license, the writer takes actual personages and through heaps of research and a bravura intuitive act of imagination conjures up, in a plausible manner, what might have happened and been said. Coss, who is a psychotherapist as well as bard, succeeds in doing so here, proving that the mating of Freud and Shakespeare can render indelible characters and profound ideas. The playwriter uses her artistic liberty freely and to wise effect.
Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington is about two hours long and performed without an intermission. As the dialogue-driven drama consists mostly of discussions between the middle-aged characters, more impatient theatergoers who yearn to tap their toes when attending live stage shows might find it to be a tedious talkathon. Those interested in the struggle for equal rights are likely to consider it a valuable, entertaining dramatized history lesson.
But as stated, at its best Guillory and Cruz bring their fascinating characters alive; they are no longer dust but living, breathing flesh and blood people, holding forth right in front of our eyes and for brief moments we are privileged to be among these two great souls. For historians, there subjects are not really dead.
Although Coss’ script takes place one day in 1915, the arc of Du Bois’ life is worth noting. Almost half a century later, he gave Uncle Sam what may be the most gigantic “fuck you” in the history of U.S. intellectuals. W.E.B. Du Bois went from co-founding the NACCP to joining the CPUSA – Communist Party of the United States of America. (Perhaps he learned something about socialism from Mary Ovington?) Du Bois went on to return to Mother Africa, dying in Ghana at age 95. If he somehow came back to life (other than on the boards of the LATC) imagine how this great thinker would react upon learning that America’s “problem of the Twenty First Century is still the problem of the color-line” – and that along with racism, sexism, is alive and well in the land of the not-so-free.
This is the final week Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington is being performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m. in the Los Angeles Theatre Centre’s Theatre 4, 514 S. Spring St., CA 90013. For more info: (866) 811-4111; www.thelatc.org.
Reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length movie Strike on Friday, 7:30 p.m., May 26, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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