Constant Star” is an inspiring bio of Ida B. Wells, but Tazewell Thompson’s play skimps on crucial theatrical elements such as character development. The story parallels “From the Mississippi Delta” and “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” which Thompson directed for PlayMakers, but this new production too much resembles the reading of a documentary script. Only the musical inserts save the cast from appearing to be reciting from a book.
The five cast members interchangeably portray Wells and ancillary characters. Vignettes of Wells’ life are presented mostly in chronology. Born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862 to slaves, Wells teaches school to support her five siblings after her parents die of yellow fever.
She moves to Memphis in 1883 to teach and becomes a journalist and co-owner of the newspaper Free Speech, but loses her teaching job for criticizing the schools. She starts an anti-lynching crusade; has her paper destroyed by whites; moves to New York; goes on anti-lynching speech tours in the U.S. and England; marries Chicago lawyer and editor Ferdinand Bennett; and accelerates her activism until her death in 1931.
The lynchings that Wells crusades against are poignant and still wrenching today. The injustice and inhumanity are major points of the script.
In other diverse scenes, Wells refuses to receive Booker T. Washington, calling him the friend of the white man; wears a brilliant red dress (the play’s only costume change) to attract her future husband; and faces judgment day, when she’s asked if she would be able to adjust to heavenly ways.
The quintet of Trazana Beverly, Marguerite Hannah, Kimberly Hawthorne, Kathryn Hunter Williams and Brenda Thomas is formidable in delivering the narrative and the a cappella music, largely spirituals. “I Hear That Train a’ Comin’,” “Get on Board,” “Do, Lord,” and “I’m a Rollin’ Through an Unfriendly World” are typical selections. But the heavy narrative and quick cuts between characters minimize intimacy and interaction among the actresses.
Thompson’s movement of the cast, aided by Matthew Frey’s shadows and accent lighting, creates a mesmerizing flow while punctuating Wells’ strength of personality and character.
Thompson is exploring a new genre, the docu-play, with “Constant Star.” While it deviates from typical stage drama, it is a worthy addition to the history of the black experience.