At Geva, 11/03/18 [Photo: Geva fan]
In the last three and a half years, three plays at Geva have been based on the lives of historically prominent African-Americans: Mountaintop (2015), Martin Luther King Jr., The Agitators (2017), Frederick Douglass, and Thurgood (2018), Thurgood Marshall. Like all plays based on known history and figures, authors — and to a degree directors and actors — walk a representational tightrope.
As fictionalists, they are free to make up whatever they choose as long as the aesthetic effect works. But if they stray from or distort or invent facts, those in the audience most knowledgeable will bristle. Furthermore, the task has an ethical dimension. Imaging history — one way or the other — creates its own kind of history, one that should be told for a defensible purpose.
Of the three, The Mountaintop was my favorite. Although it was 3 and 1/2 years ago, I can still vividly recall scenes from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. spends the last night of his life conversing with a fictional, seemingly inconsequential hotel maid. Some of the dialogue is taken directly from King’s actual words, but the play is at best a quasi-historical journey. Mountaintop moves into the realm of fantastical realism with a possible supernatural element: the maid reveals she is an angel come to prepare King for his soon-to-be-coming afterlife.
By using imaginative and dramatic devices — rather than a more historical narrative hewing to the facts — Mountaintop allows the rapt viewer to see King in a new, more inner, light. I don’t expect a historical drama to necessarily be a history lesson but a lens for seeing the porous boundaries between the imagination and “reality.”
Ultimately, I was disappointed with The Agitators. The playbill describes the Agitators as “the story of that 45-year friendship [between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass] . . . enduring but tempestuous.”
When I saw the play, I accepted the warmth between the two in their supposed 45 year friendship, especially in scenes where they are imagined together at one of Douglass’ sons’ baseball games or when Anthony is imagined to visit Douglass after his homestead is destroyed in an arsonist’s fire in 1872.
However, as seen in “The greatest American of the nineteenth century”, a reflection upon David Blight’s recent biography of Douglass, Blight undercuts the idea that Anthony and Douglass were fast friends. According to Blight, the friendship markedly cooled, if not ended, in the late-1860’s when Douglass did not want to include women in the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. As Blight writes:
From my understanding, Douglass and Anthony had a friendship, but not a deep one, and clashed sharply enough to destroy the relationship when Douglass did not push for women’s suffrage.
Therefore, I was puzzled when the playwright had Anthony — in 1872, the year she cast her illegal presidential ballot — lay down with Douglass on the fire-singed floor of his burned home.
After reading Blight and other sources, I think The Agitators — a play that does make some implicit claims to be a history lesson — substitutes a more accurate historical reality for the Rochester romanticization described by Blight. The result left me feeling flat.
To prepare for Thurgood, I borrowed seven items from the Brighton Memorial Library and the Monroe Branch of the RPL. These seven were only a small portion of material available throughout libraries across Monroe County.
I also watched an HBO film of Laurence Fishburne’s rendition of Thurgood (2011). In addition, I watched the recent film Marshall (2017) about a trial in Connecticut where Marshall and a Jewish lawyer convince a jury their client accused of raping a white woman is not guilty.
Tonight, we were treated to a masterful one man performance by Lester Purry. Thurgood does not use fictional devices. Instead, the play is a dramatized memoir within the tradition of Mark Twain’s lively lectures, hilariously comic and serious by turns. As explained by Jonathon Ntheketha, local actor and Senior Assistant Director of Student Success & Outreach at RIT’s Multicultural Center who moderated the “Before Talk,” the author George Stevens Jr. took Marshall’s words verbatim from transcripts compiled at the Columbia Oral History Research Office in 1977. Stevens filled in gaps from other sources.
After all that reading and viewing, I probably knew more about the particulars and anecdotes of Marshall than most in the audience. But that pre-knowledge did not dampen my interest. Juan William’s Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (1998) and Wil Haygood’s Showdown: Thurgood Marshall an the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America (2015) are excellent, well-written biographies. But live theater — much more so than an audio performance of a biography no matter how skilled the reader — brings people on pages to life. Even in a play hewed to the facts, the act of acting breathes imagination into historical reality.
As the show opens, we see an elderly man with a cane — about 82 years old — addressing an audience (us) at Howard University in 1992. As Purry portrays Marshall, initially Thurgood appears as a slow moving, if not crotchety, old man with a whine hinting at the resentment of aging.
But Purry’s power is to progressively endow or animate Marshall with recollected energy as he warms to his subject: 60 years of struggle for civil rights highlighted by the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision and Marshall’s confirmation in 1967 as the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.
As Purry begins to march around the sparse but symbolic stage set (an actual flag from Howard University emblazoned with the date of its inception, 1867, and a gigantic print of the Constitution made in Germany and shipped to Rochester), Marshall’s humanity is on full display. His humor is witty or worldly or earthy with enough sly references to booze and sex.
In the concluding scene, the cane is back again in Purry’s hand as he looks tired after recapitulating his extraordinary life. In that last scene, we revel in Marshall’s demolishment of legal segregation and sympathize with his lament that integration is still a dream deferred — look no further than the Rochester City School District or, to be frank, the composition of the audience at the matinee performance.
Purry left the stage to a standing ovation as we applauded both him and Thurgood. Thurgood does hew to the facts and it works.
Before the performance, I cheated and watched the film version acted by Laurence Fishburne. Filmed theater can do a few things live theater can not, like close ups and panning the set from multiple angles. I discussed this with Jonathon after the “Before Talk.”
Jonathon said filmed plays introduced him to works he would not otherwise have seen. But something is missing. To Jonathon, its the synergy and intimacy of live theater and the contributions and engagement of the audience, the clapping and the laughter. As he said, if I came back to another performance, I might see a very different play depending on the synergy between audience and actor.
I agree. Laurence Fishburne’s two dimensional performance was impressive. But I’ll take three dimensional anytime.
I also watched the HBO film, Marshall, that dramatizes a real life trial in Connecticut where Marshall and a Jewish lawyer succeed in exonerating a black man accused of raping and kidnapping a white woman.
We see a young Thurgood: cool (hanging out with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in Harlem nightclubs), willful (drinking from a Whites Only water fountain, barging into a white Hartford country club), legally sharp (carrying around his personal collection of law books) and savvy in reading human nature (choosing a white southern woman for the jury because he guessed the only people she liked less than poor blacks were smug Yankee prosecuting lawyers). This Marshall is more confrontational than Thurgood‘s Marshall. In the film, Marshall stands on the steps of the courthouse, loudly condemning racism as cameras flash and reporters scribble. The movie was a little too Hollywoodized, but enjoyable.
After reading a piece in Real Faces, History vs. Hollywood, I learned the characterization of Sam Friedman, Marshall’s Jewish side kick, is an almost complete fabrication. Friedman was not an insurance lawyer with no trial experience and, at first, no backbone. In fact, Friedman had already been practicing law for 14 years, longer than Marshall, and had a stellar reputation as a trial lawyer, well versed in Connecticut laws. In reality, the NAACP asked Friedman to represent the accused black chauffeur, not vice versa. As the article says, “It would have not been uncommon for him [Friedman] to take such a case, as he was a champion against such injustices throughout his career. Sam was the architect of the case, not Marshall” as evidenced by the fact that Marshall is barely mentioned in press coverage of the trial. In the two biographies that case is never mentioned, not even in a footnote.
Nonetheless, the historical distortions did not really bother me — although it did Friedman’s family, understandably. The approach of the film allowed for character development, conflict, epiphanies, sentimentality and plot twists — all the stuff of fiction. Had the film hewed to historical reality it would have been boring and forgettable, and probably would limit its critique of racism and anti-Semitism.
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