I forget who said it, “History is a construct of those intersections between unique individuals.” But he could have added that history is best told thru those intersections as well.
There are some that have already made for good theatre, interesting feature films, quality television or fine writing: Elvis Presley & Richard Nixon (one good film/one poor play), Joe Louis and Max Schmeling (one pretty good book/one not bad TV movie), Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley (one superior book/one solid play), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini (one very well reviewed play/one very poorly received TV series), John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (tons of books/one rather good mini-series).
And then there are some still waiting to be mined: T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx, Andre the Giant and Samuel Beckett, Alexander Kerensky and Ted Danson (Yes, the actor)*.
Some “intersections” have made history; some have made drama, the best, from a writer’s point of view, made both.
The intersection of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 – 1963) Mary White Ovington (1865 – 1951) made both.
Playwright Clare Coss has been wise enough to recognize both “the unique individuals” in “W. E. B.” Du Bois first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, author, civil rights activist and Pan-Africanist and Mary White Ovington the white suffragette, journalist, poet, devout pacifist and activist for racial equality after hearing Frederick Douglass speak in a Brooklyn church; as well as their “intersection” in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). **
The result being her oft-produced one act, Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington.
The play is well constructed in its development of the characters, with Du Bois coming across as the fiery strategist and Ovington as the cool tactician while giving an insightful and workable history of each. Coss also provides a tidy history of the establishment of the NAACP as well as a firm sense of the racial tensions of the time.
She is a tad fuzzy on minor details, such as placing DuBois and the NAACP’s vocal opposition to the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation (1915) in close proximity to America’s war fever prior to the nation’s entry into World War I (1917). But this is more than forgivable for in doing so, she nicely “outs” Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner to be elected to the presidency after the civil war, for the racist he was.
Like her characters, Coss’ dialogue is intelligently crafted as well.
There is a great deal of dialogue about the conflicts in the world DuBois and Ovington occupy. DuBois’ constant battles with the organization’s board over his editorial control of The Crisis, the NAACP’s monthly magazine, his difficulty with the suffragette movement due to refusal to acknowledge the rights of black women, and his numerous affairs.
Ovington bemoans DuBois’ threats to resign; the inferior station of women of all races to men of all colors, the sexual double standards and America’s being drawn into the Great War being raged in Europe.
All these fields of conflict are spoken about, but what is lacking is conflict in the most important arena, that of the stage itself.
We are treated to the sexual tension existing being Dubois and Covington which resolves with both acknowledging the importance of the work they are doing taking precedence.
While both the dramatic setup and payoff are valid, Coss has not fixed focus on this conflict of the heart, instead confining her work to a single act’s natural limits and thus removing the possibility of developing the passion into a dramatic conflagration. This results, unfortunately, in the lovers feeling not so much “star-crossed” as bumping into each other in the vegetable section of a Whole Foods market.
Still, the play presents an appreciable study of two individuals well worth the studying and offers up a craftsman’s serving of a “slice of historical life.”
These merits alone make it worth seeing.
The Robey Theatre Company’s production, in association with downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre Center, likewise has merits with which to attract an audience.
Set designer Thomas Meleck, prop master Jasmine-Joy Singleton and costumer Naila A. Sanders have all done an excellent job in recreating the play’s timeframe.
In the role of Ovington, Melanie Cruz does a superb job.
Often the trouble for some actors in undertaking historical roles is in managing to discard the aura of the twenty-first century.
This is a problem that felled the 1985 film Revolution by director Hugh Hudson.
In the lead as a reluctant minuteman, Hudson couldn’t have burnt the sense of modernity from Al Pacino if both he and his editor had been packing M132 Armored Flamethrowers with full tanks.
The results being that a beautifully filmed work flopped and Pacino avoided the silver screen for four years.
But Cruz wears the era with both grace and believability, and draws breath into her performance that, in turn, pulls in the audience.
Ben Guillory’s direction is firm and workable.
And there his contribution should have ended.
Regrettably, Guillory also assumes the role of DuBois.
The wearing of these two hats is always fraught with potential grief, and Guillory is not agile enough to avoid falling victim to that grief.
This was displayed on stage in his painfully apparent difficulty with his lines. His struggle with them was evident almost from his opening moments and Cruz’s efforts to assist him in delivery became only more noticeable as they became needed.
The demands placed on director and actor are prodigious; in trying to master both, Guillory has served neither.
Nor, sadly, the play.
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* To any ambitious typewriter thumpers feel free to knock yourself out on these, but a show of appreciation in the dedication would be nice.
** Along with the Boston lawyer Moorfield Storey, who served as the organization’s first president until his death in 1929 and who championed the civil rights of all minorities and immigrants.
(Featured in Image: Ben Guillory and Melanie Cruz / Photo credit: Matthew Leland)
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Now Playing: Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington
A Presention of: Robey Theatre Company
Venue: Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013
For Tickets Phone: 866-811-4111
or visit: www.thelatc.org
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