LETTERS TO EDITOR
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A CurtainUp DC
by Dolores Whiskeyman
Constant Star, Tazewell Thompson's new play at Arena Stage, is a love letter in five-part harmony to a woman who died in 1931. Ida B. Wells is a name that should be front and center in the history of the civil rights movement. Instead, it's just a footnote.
In Constant Star, Ida B. Wells emerges as a powerful, passionate figure, uncompromising, unyielding -- "the B," she declares early in the play, "stands for 'backbone'". Thompson is rightfully mesmerized by her, and rightfully outraged that she has become an afterthought of history.
Born a slave in 1863, Ida Wells was a journalist, publisher, suffragette, and tireless crusader for civil rights. Seventy years before the world ever heard of Rosa Parks, she refused to surrender a first class seat on a railroad car to sit in the smoking car -- "the colored first class". When she was forcibly removed by the white conductor, Wells sued -- and won a $500 settlement from the railroad. The judgment was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ordered her to pay $200 in court costs.
The injustice outraged her and set her on a course of lifelong agitation for the same civil liberties that whites took for granted -- the right, as Wells says, "to breathe free". Hers was an eloquent voice in the African-American community's crusade against the reign of terror known as Jim Crow. A co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Wells later criticized the organization for failing to take a radical stance. She had nothing but contempt for Booker T. Washington, whom she considered a spineless collaborator in white oppression. She refused to be silenced or to modify her aggressive tone.
"I was put on earth to agitate!" Wells thunders.
And in this rendering, she does -- or all five of her do -- over and over again, in a series of vignettes that lay out the highlights of a fascinating life.
Constant Star is not so much a play as a pageant; there's no storyline to follow, no narrative to drive the action forward. At times, there's no action at all, just Ida -- larger than life.
Most of the time, that's plenty.
Constant Star does everything theatre should do -- it is entertaining, engaging, moving, and enlightening. As a play, however, it doesn't quite deliver. It comes to no resolution, and at times, it's a victim of its own conceit.
Thompson, who also directed, wrote it for five actresses to portray Wells between the ages of 16 and 69 -- sometimes all at the same time. In the play's more effective moments, they portray other characters as well -- her friends, family, employees, fellow agitators -- including Susan B. Anthony -- and enemies. Shona Tucker brings the presence of Ida's proud, loving father, and Tina Fabrique, who plays Ida in her last years, gives voice to the establishment critics.
Thompson frames his vignettes with 20 spirituals, beautifully sung by the cast. It's a refreshing approach to a subject who would otherwise have been a candidate for a one-woman show. (Wells was so prolific a writer that the material for such a play is certainly abundant.) But using five different women underscores the complexity of her personality and creates an opportunity for dramatization of key events in her life.
It also leads to a bit of confusion at points, for in Thompson's staging there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the assignment of speeches. Shona Tucker plays Ida smitten with the man she later married, but so does Gail Grate, in an especially charming sequence in which she alternates between delivering a solemn oration and dissolving into girl-giggly hysterics at the sight of him. And Cheryl Freeman plays Ida in pursuit of him, appearing at a dance in a knock-out red number by costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh.
And the second act never really advances. There's a mystifying sequence that involves Ida's mother delivering motherly homilies, and as staged by Thompson, it's a lovely pastiche, shifting seamlessly across the stage as first one actress, then another, assumes the mother's voice. But why it occurs when it occurs -- and what purpose it means to serve at that point -- is a mystery. And Thompson makes such a point in Act One of Ida's passion for her husband, that we naturally expect to hear much more about him. But we don't. Once she decides to marry, he disappears from the play.
The other mystery is why Thompson chose to stage his work on such a set -- a beautifully detailed reproduction of a 19th century newspaper office by Donald Eastman, with hot press machine, period typewriters, and high windows shooting skyward. It's gorgeous, but Thompson hardly uses it. Worse, the line of the set draws the eye up, away from the women -- and the shining oak woodwork behind them is a distraction. Thompson could just as easily -- and perhaps more effectively -- use a bare stage, with two tables and a few chairs. The performances are so passionate -- and the voice of Ida herself so strong -- that Thompson doesn't need any window dressing.
And as a writer, he spares no one. Ida's graphic descriptions of lynch mobs in action are here in gory, painful detail, not once but three times. The repetition has its purpose though; it helps to explain why Ida never gave an inch. The ugly history of race relations in America is that ordinary people found sport in extraordinary cruelty. The point of the lynch mob was the emasculation of a people, and she understood that, perhaps better than any of her contemporaries.
Thanks to Thompson's play, we understand it, too.