Review: "In White America"

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Foreground:  Shane Taylor.  Behind (L-R) Nalina Mann, Bill Tatum, Ezra Barnes. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Director Charles Mayan ironically lights up Martin Duberman's "In White America" by opening the play with empty chairs on stage at the Castillo Theatre.  Slowly, Bill Toles's guitar fill that space with freedom songs  as actors and actresses enter to revive the 1963 Drama Desk Award winning documentary play about the story of African-Americans from enslavement of Africans to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.

Woodie King, Jr, the founder and director of the New Federal Theatre, commented on why he resurrected this historical play.  "I am producing the 50 the anniversary production of Martin Duberman's play because it is so timely.  It is like watching history repeat itself."

A freedom guitar interweaves with the present with the November 1, 2015 speech of President Barack Obama.  African - Americans Art McFarland and Shane Taylor use their voice to capture the hopes of an oppressed people. An actor steps forward to recite this presidential speech.  "For too long past injustices have been ignored..." However, this hopeful speech is muted by the voice of a white bigot.  "The white race has shown great restraint to not kill Negroes wholesale {due to the agitation regarding the right to vote.}"

The white voices go back further in time until they reach a slave ship coming through the Middle Passage. A ship's doctor records his memories.  "Sailing from Guinea, the Africans are chained and irons are clamped upon their legs.  They are frequently stored so closely together that they sit on their sides, and they cannot stand...The officers are permitted to have sex with the women...One night a Negro got free, and jumped overboard.  He was devoured by a shark.  Some Africans cannot bear the loss of their liberty."

At these times, Bill Toles's guitar lifts the spirits with a song.  "And before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave.  And go home to my Lord, and be free."

At this point Duberman, a historian, has brought the whole cast on stage.  One by one actors and actresses, who are African-American and white, rise from their chairs to tell the story of resistance.  This play's roots are in letters, speeches, private journals, personal testimonies, and songs to explore 400 years of irresponsible white power in Northern and Southern America.  This writer plunges his listeners back to February 11, 1790 inside of a meeting.  "The gross evil of trafficking in human beings must end...Exercise justice and mercy to abolish the slave trade, " a Quaker representative pleaded to Congress.

White actors Bill Tatum and Ezra Barnes dramatically speak on the behalf of bigots and liberals such as John Brown throughout the play.  For example, a prejudiced member of Congress is indifferent to the plea.  "If you could show me how this can be done without violating the Constitution, I would do it," one actor says to his modern 2015 audience.  "We do not want to offend our Southern citizens" echoes the excuse for continuing with the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Duberman's historical pen drips boldly.  Nat Turner's speech tells the audience that he considered himself a "prophet" who saw "white and Black spirits fighting."  Also, the story of Prudence Crandall, a Quaker and teacher in Canterbury, Connecticut opened a school for African-American young women.  The only water supply, a well, was poisoned with feces, and eventually the school was burned down.  Ms. Crandall, played by Nadina Mann, says that the ruthless cruelty against Black women saddened her. She  "felt ashamed of her color."

Race and gender turmoil erupt in Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman? " speech, delivered by JoAnna Rhinehart.  Sojourner stands up to tell off the oppressive men.  "I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me.  And ain't I a woman?"  After the play, Woodie King and others spoke with the actresses and actors.  "JoAnna Rhinehart is one of the best actresses alive today!" he said.  "I did not know she could sing so well!"  This description is an understatement, and her words and singing take the audience boldly back and forth.

Duberman's conflict propels the play.  His actor becomes John Brown, and takes us into the court room with this abolitionist.  "I see a book there that is a Bible! ...It teaches me to remember them that are in bonds...What I have done is not WRONG, but RIGHT," he says. Then, Brown predicts the coming Civil War in a written last message.  The writer reveals insights into the American flag under which the African slaves were emancipated.  However, the historian also let us know that pro-slavery forces put up their own Confederate flag.  They never took it down, but pro-Confederates killed many in the name of that lost war.

Toles's sang " No More Auction Block" for me, and the writer moves the clock forward to the voices of Booker T. Washington and Dr. Dubois. Dr. Dubois takes the idea of Ida B. Wells, and starts up the NAACP with thousands of lynchings taking place all over the nation. "Washington accepts the inferiority of the Negro," Dr. Dubois says.  "Washington accepts Negroes belittling and ridiculing themselves." The actresses and actors pace the stage, taking the audience up to the Cold War and the harassment of the great activists, Paul and Islanda Robeson.

Missing from the play are the victorious voices of more modern women such as Fanny Lou Hamer, Ella Baker of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee ( SNCC), and Angela Davis.   On the other hand, Duberman updates his play with a mentioning of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and other recent victims of white supremacy.  Then, songs like Marley's "Redemption Song" and "Oh Freedom" weave through the orally projected stories.  Our minds are in the present during the play, but frequently the stage voices frequently go back to the past of oppression and resistance.  The play closes with an address President Lincoln in Congress on December 1, 1862.  "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history."

"In White America" will be playing at the Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd street until November 15, 2015.  It is a must see.

 

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