Given short shrift as a Civil Rights Movement leader during his lifetime —though he was a key adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Bayard Rustin has been “rehabilitated” of late by gay African-Americans eager to identify their own activist heroes. A theatrical mosaic pieced together from interviews and dramatized incidents, Brian Freeman’s “Civil Sex” provides a fascinating, suitably complex introduction to this very complicated man.
It’s easy to see why Berkeley Rep chose to re-mount the play, which had already been staged (in late 1997) at San Francisco’s much smaller venue the Marsh. Recalling Anna Deavere Smith’s works at times, albeit with a full cast playing multiple characters, this dynamic evening builds its absorbing portrait out of non-chronological, sharply staged peeks at a very “colorful” history. The Rep script is much-revised from Freeman’s prior version, with fewer stretches of verbatim testimony from Rustin’s surviving associates.
Those bits are among its best, though, given the ensemble’s concise impersonations of various idiosyncratic voices. Among them are Davis Platt (Mark H. Dold), the first of Rustin’s many young, blond and handsome lovers; he recalls their years together with tenderness and regret. A showier figure is cut by fabled author James Baldwin (June A. Lomena), whom Rustin often “rescued” from rough-trade sexual encounters. Paul Robeson, Tallulah Bankhead, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne and others are noted in passing (though not seen) as among Rustin’s celebrity pals.
His turbulent past is glimpsed in brief flashes. Raised by a grandmother after his mother skipped town, Rustin (Duane Boutte) was a sometime professional singer, a jailed WWII conscientious objector,then post-war employee for pacifist orgs the Fellowship of Reconciliation and War Resisters League. He was sent to prison again on a “morals charge” (visualized here as a very funny pantomimed menage a trois). After release, his activist tendencies — developed in the hoosegow, to the authorities’ annoyance — led him to take on major behind-the-scenes roles in seminal Civil Rights protests of the 1950s and early ’60s.
Of course, he was easy prey for segregationists looking to discredit the movement. His prison stints, incongruous “British” accent, not-so-discreet homosexuality and alleged Communist allegiances were seized upon by foes like Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Ironically, Thurmond’s public attack swung activist sympathies back toward Rustin, who was permitted a stirring speech at the March on Washington.
But notoriety also forced King to distance himself from this mentor (who’d largely sculpted the movement’s insistence on non-violent action). Later on, Rustin made some curious tactical errors, further obfuscating his legacy. He died in relative obscurity from cardiac arrest in 1986.
As directed by Freeman, “Civil Sex” is fast-paced, affectionate, informative and clever. An empty stage (all props are wheeled in) is filled only at the close, by a cheering rain of rainbow-colored streamers. Matthew Spiro’s diverse sound design (a compilation of jukebox faves from the last half-century) and Alexander Nichols’ nuanced lighting also make evocative contribs. But the most striking work is done by the five actors, who switch gender, race, affect and even species (there’s a brief canine cameo) with aplomb.
Boutte captures Rustin’s hauteur and boundless intelligence; he also sings quite well. Author Freeman is a standout as wheelchair-bound former ally Jonathan Price, as well as a more brusquely opinionated Jewish matron who’d aided the integrationist cause. Dold, Lomena and Michael Stebbins ably fill numerous other roles.
Interestingly, the play omits any appearances by Dr. King himself. (Reactionaries spread gossip that MLK Jr. had an affair with Rustin, a charge neither ever publicly addressed.) His absence provides another poignant dimension to this neglected figure’s saga.