POWERFUL AND PROVOCATIVE CIVIL RIGHTS ERA DRAMA AT LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

Before the Civil Rights movements of the 1960’s there were organizations and individual leaders in the 1950’s who were pushing the civil rights envelope; energizing those who would ultimately follow and become its leaders.

One such early civil rights activist was the brilliant, openly gay, avowed atheist and strategist Bayard Rustin. Rustin preferred to achieve his goals by championing non-violence as the best method of changing the social landscape in America during the 50’s and 60’s. He admired the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi in achieving his goals for the Indian people. Unfortunately, Jim Crow laws still in place in the American South of the 1960’s made many demonstrations for equality extremely dangerous and difficult.

(L-R) Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin” and Ro Boddie as “Martin Luther King. Jr.”

(L-R) Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin” and Ro Boddie as “Martin Luther King. Jr.” Photo credit by Jim Carmody.

Playwright/actor Michael Benjamin Washington had zeroed in on Bayard Rustin, back in 2013 as an interesting person and subject for a future play. He brought his idea for a workshop reading to La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Chris Ashley to see if Ashley and the playhouse had any interest. Two years later “BluePrints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” debuted as a World Premiere production with the playwright/actor in the lead role as Rustin on September 20th at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

The provocative and insightfully written drama by talented playwright/actor Michael Benjamin Washington is crisply directed by Lucie Tiberghien, opens a window into the life story of an individual not many are familiar with: Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 ‘March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom’.

Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin” and Mandi Masden as “Miriam Caldwell” Photo credit by Jim Carmody.

Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington as “Bayard Rustin” and Mandi Masden as “Miriam Caldwell”
Photo credit by Jim Carmody.

The sponsoring organization for the event headed by A. Philip Randolph (Antonio T.J. Johnson), the leading African-American labor union president, socialist and champion of Rustin, is in need of the highly principled, intelligent, organized strategist to be his organization’s number one man.   However, Randolph is concerned that Rustin’s sexual orientation (still a taboo stigma) and his avowed atheism will dampen the support of the straight community and money donors in the long run.

He asks that Rustin keep a low profile, in fact, Randolph prefers that Rustin doesn’t make any public appearances or statements concerning the march and subsequent meetings and press conferences; going so far as to tell Bayard to run everything from his office indicating that he, Randolph, will be the public face of the march. Bayard chides him saying “I thought all you Baptists feel uneasy when speaking in public?” These are close friends. Rustin, however, sublimates the hurt of being demeaned and shut out from any recognition for his work on the march. He bites the bullet, and soldiers on.

Rustin’s tiny office where he plans and directs the logistics of the march is in desperate need of a secretary and general factotum. When recent college graduate Miriam Caldwell (Mandi Masden) knocks on the office door looking for an internship, she’s hired on the spot. Rustin now has the beginning of a core group.

When old friend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ro Boddie) walks into the office to meet and chat with Rustin, Miriam gets all flustered and is now really impressed with her new boss. Washington’s play, to his credit humanizes both Rustin and King, Jr. Neither men are saints, nor do they claim to be. One day Davis Platt, Jr. (Mat Hosteteler) and former lover of Rustin walks into the office asking to see Bayard.

Davis still longs and aches for Rustin to begin again, but both men really know that whatever sent them in different directions before, will probably happen again. It’s a very poignant scene between two former lovers that resonates with the audience whatever one’s sexual orientation might be.

Washington the actor, renders a powerful, nuanced and riveting performance as Bayard Rustin, which no doubt definitely pleases Washington the playwright, thanks to the ever watchful eye of director Tiberghien. Lots of nice directorial touches enrich this overall production.

Offering solid support in this stellar production is Ro Boddie as MLKing, Jr. Boddie shapes and shades his character; letting us see the famous preacher and the private man away from his pulpit as very few ever saw him. It’s a finely judged performance.

Mandi Masden as Miriam, Antonio T.J. Johnson as Randolph, and the aforementioned Mat Hostetler help illuminate Bayard Rustin, the man that some have called the ‘lost prophet’ of the civil rights era.

As a side bar: it is promising to see more talented and gifted playwrights of color like Washington and Alvin Terrell McCraney, Katori Hall, and Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage being produced. The theatre is in the arts vanguard of the era of ‘diversity’. It’s been a long time getting here, but the wait has been worth it.

In the technical department the creative team led by director Tiberghien is solid thanks to Scenic Designer Neil Patel, who recreates the Washington, D.C. and New York City office settings, and the Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, along with costumes by Beth Goldenberg, and Sound Design by Joe Huppert, and the Projection Designs of John Narun.

‘Blue Prints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin’ is a 90 minute, no intermission, splendid evening of theatre for discerning audiences. The powerful and engaging drama performs on the Shelia and Hughes Potiker stage at The La Jolla Playhouse through October 4, 2015.

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