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A CurtainUp Review

Conversations With a Kleagle
By Jenny Sandman

South Side Cafe

"You step out of line, you stretch hemp", says Randall Monahan, speaking of the large African-American population of his small Southern town. It's the 1920s, in the deep rural South. Monahan is a Kleagle--a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan.

Until almost the 1940s, lynchings were a popular pastime in the South, and the Klan was an active and welcomed presence in most communities. In some parts of the South, it still is, albeit a more clandestine one.

In Conversation with a Kleagle John Watson, a reporter from one of the first black newspapers in Chicago, decides to expose the Klan for what it is. Since he can pass for white ("high-yella", in the parlance of the times) he goes down South disguised as a Klan member to get his interview with Monahan.

The play is based on the true story of Walter White, a blond-haired, blue-eyed black man who joined the Klan and then wrote a book about it. His expose helped drive the Klan underground, and he went on to become secretary of the NAACP. In Kleagle, John Watson gets his interview with Randall Monahan but his ruse is discovered and he narrowly escapes his own lynching. Back in Chicago, his stories about the encounter win him fame and prestige, and bring some unwanted attention to that part of the South. But when Watson hears of the injustices still being committed against Tookie, the bootblack who saved his life, Watson again takes his life into his own hands and faces Monahan a second time.

Any play involving the Klan is likely to be disturbing, and this one is no exception though the focus is more on Watson's story and less on the Klan which provides a welcome respite from tension for audience members. The drama highlights the daily stress and strain of surviving in such a racially divided world, especially for those (like Watson) educated enough to know better. The text is simple but strong, and well researched, showing both the good intentions and cruelties of both Watson and Monahan. Though the transitions between scenes are occasionally erratic, a healthy pace and sense of forward movement are maintained.

Steve Aronson as Monahan is deliciously evil, with a perfect (and bone-chilling) drawl. Mark Daly as Watson is a powerful and capable foil, unsure of himself at times but always sure of his moral superiority. Todd Davis as Tookie is surprisingly touching as the bootblack, whose beaten-but-not-broken stance affords Watson the inner strength to face Monahan again.

The staging is simple, with only minimal props. Two vertical backlighted scrims are used to excellent advantages. The costumes are equally simple, true to the period. The direction, by Stacy Waring, makes good use of both the small space and the large cast, allowing the strengths of the actors and the weaknesses of the characters to play off each other in intriguing ways.

While still rough in places, Conversation with a Kleagle is an arresting glimpse into America's not-too-distant past, where white politicians preached the preservation of the "good old Christian American way" and "Yankee carpetbagger" was an insult of the highest degree. Without being overly maudlin or politically correct, Rudy Graymanages to show both how far we've come since then and how far we have left to go.

Written by Rudy Gray
Directed by Stacy Waring
With Steve Aronson, Mark A. Daly, Todd Davis, Ronald Rand, Willie Ann Gissendanner, Eric R. Morland, Charley Gartman, Antonio D. Charity and Doug Stone
Set and Lighting Design by Christophe Pierre
Sound Design by Jim Caughlin
Costume Design by Ali Turns
Running time: 2 hours, with one ten-minute intermission
WorkShop Theater Company
312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor
Through August 16, 2003; Tuesday through Saturday at 8
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on August 5th

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