‘They’re executing our children’.
No. This is not a 2015 claim. This cry came from Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. a few days after the 1963 March On Washington. It was then that the KKK set of a bomb at the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. killing four youngsters; three were fourteen and one was eleven.
If you are a student of history and can remember way back to the early 50’s you might remember Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, the Desegregating of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, the sit-ins in 1958-1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961.
Bayard Rustin, long involved as a non-violent civil rights activist, was never a household name. He, A. Philip Randolph and King began working together in the 50’s in many of the above protests. They also organized a March on Washington in 1941 to end discrimination in employment. That event never happened. Roosevelt precluded that by signing an executive order banning discrimination in defense contracts. But it was Rustin’s homosexuality that was the straw that broke the bonds between Randolph, King and Rustin.
Randolph and Rustin influenced King to use non-violence in his quest to end discrimination but things got a little too close for comfort for the men and he was asked to resign The Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It wasn’t his pacifist beliefs, his 26 months in prison as a conscientious objector in WW II, or his accomplishments in the fight for civil rights and equality for the Negro that pushed him into the background. They were afraid the media would make a circus of his private life living openly as a gay man and therefor hamper their attempts to bring recognition to their non-violent activities.
In his world premiere showing, ‘Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode To Bayard Rustin’, deftly directed by Lucie Tiberghien and co produced with Kansas City Repertory Theatre, playwright Michael Benjamin Washington has scripted a wonderfully moving, oft times humorous and always gripping story of Rustin’s involvement in the 1963 March On Washington.
Washington, whose acting credits include ‘Mama Mia’, ‘La Cage Aux Follies’ and ‘Memphis, details Rustin’s relationships with those he worked with in his past. It was time for reconciliation; to get things done on a large scale and Rustin was the man to do it. His most influential supporter was his mentor and long-standing friend A. Philip Randolph, (Antonio T.J. Johnson) leader of the Pullman Porters Union and oft time guest of the Roosevelt’s.
Randolph meets up with Rustin in ‘a handsome parlour in an ancient brownstone turned storage space. The time is 1963. ‘I want you to paint a portrait…’My portrait is of an integrated America standing before the President dignified and sincere. Present our demands to the government using your teachings of protests as tactics within the philosophy of Non-Violence.’ ‘I have accepted the role of Director of the March on the specific condition I name my Deputy.’
And so begins the backstory/journey of how Rustin, after serious consideration and soul searching, airing out past conflicts and shared faith, accepts the role of principal organizer for the 1963 March on Washington. He marshals all his past supporters oft time adversaries and friends; he calls in his chits from those who owed him favors from the past like Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson, Bobby Kennedy, President Kennedy, Roy Wilkins.
Washington brings to light the soul of a man destine to ‘do it his way’. He argues with King as Ro Boddie speaks to the early King beautifully. Both King and Rustin have work to do to mend fences. ‘When Adam (Clayton Powell) threatened to expose you and me as homosexual lovers, I had one choice. He did concoct a lie. I did turn against you. We have been derailed. But that was two years ago and God has brought you and me back together…’
As the story progresses, Rustin is amazed at the efficiency of Randolph’s choice as his go to it gal and secretary, Miriam Caldwell who made it her business to include a woman speaker for the occasion. (Mandi Masden)
Washington’s Rustin is at the center of all that takes place (he is on stage for the entire 100 minute production) in his own story. It is he that encourages King to go forward with his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Tiberghien’s production and Washington’s ‘Ode’ exceed all expectations.
Starting in a cluttered storage room covered with sheets to protect the furniture from dust to the breakout of a bright, eye- popping look at the National Mall where the March took place.
Neil Patel’s set is nothing less that stunning. Imagine a chalkboard that actually writes on its own (credit john Narun for the many and accurate projections with faces of Belafonte, King, Randolph and Jackson) and sliding panels that move effortlessly?
Urged on with lighting designer Lap Chi Chu’s dark and brooding panels and dimly lit meeting room panels slip away and open up on to the Mall. It shows the reflection pool, the Dome of the Capitol building and the Washington Monument. It is a sight to behold, one that brought tears of recognition. Beth Goldberg’s costume designs capture the time in history and Joe Huppert’s sound design reigns in on Jackson’s beautiful voice.
As for the principals, local favorite Antonio T.J. Johnson (who stepped in at the last minute) comes off as a bigger than life Randolph. ‘God is ringing. And he wants to speak with you, my boy! Begin staffing immediately’.
Mandi Madsen is the perfect foil for Rustin. Standing up to him on occasion and demanding a woman be part of the March she stands shoulder to shoulder with Rustin as a leading figure in the equation.
Finally, Mat Hostelter makes a brief appearance as Davis Platt, JR. Rustin’s lover. Rustin has to decide his his future path and at this point we see him sending Mat away. ‘Some of us were made to walk this lonesome valley alone, baby. I’m not ready to be your one and only’.
How does one even write of the brilliance of a Michael Benjamin Washington? To say that his every move, nuance, grimace or meditation was awesome would be to minimize the essence of Rustin as channeled through Washington. It is a see to believe performance.
And yes, now in 2015 black children are still being executed.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through October 4th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Drama
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: Start at $20.00
Venue: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre