Unflinching descriptions of lynchings and their barbaric carnival atmosphere are at the appalled and appalling heart of Tazewell Thompson’s brilliantly staged “Constant Star,” the playwright-director’s impressionistic evocation of the life of pioneer black activist Ida B. Wells. Inspired by a PBS documentary, Tazewell’s production, in which script, staging, lighting, spirituals, sound effects and a tirelessly committed cast of five are inextricably entwined, is at its best riveting. The play is occasionally too raucous and unvaried in its emotional level, and its second act is somewhat diffuse, but it is nevertheless an important theatrical addition to published black history.
“Constant Star” certainly isn’t a play in any formal sense. There are times, notably in act two, when the script cries out for elucidation of important moments in Wells’ life and instead Tazewell opts for another spiritual. But the power of Wells’ story and Thompson’s choreographed staging of it pretty much makes up for these failings.
The highly theatrical staging is matched by Robert Wierzel’s equally choreographed lighting and Fabian Obispo’s sound design. Wierzel’s impressive contribution includes ominous swirling shadows on the tiled stage floor from revolving electric fans overhead in Donald Eastman’s big, bold setting. Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes, covering different periods in Wells’ life, add further atmosphere, and make it clear that Wells was a stylish dresser.
Born in Mississippi of slave parents, she was a tiny woman with big ambitions. Highly opinionated, arrogant and vain, she quotes Shakespeare liberally and believes, “I was put on this earth to agitate.” Agitate she did, particularly when it came to lynchings and any other form of racial brutality. How she managed to avoid being lynched is amazing given her outspoken editorials in the Memphis Free Speech newspaper, of which she was co-owner, and her anti-lynching pamphlets. She was finally forced to flee Memphis with a bounty on her head and ended up in Chicago.
Thompson’s conceit in “Constant Star” is to have all five cast members interacting as each plays Wells at a different age. They also play a crowd of other characters, men and women.
Wells’ arrogance is certainly never downplayed as she criticizes almost everyone else who was, presumably, on the side of the angels, including Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington. She also criticizes the NAACP, of which she was a co-founder. And she has absolutely no time for President McKinley, her unsparing comments on him evoking loud laughter as if they were equally applicable to today’s president or presidents.
Wells herself was also highly criticized. Anthony, for instance, strongly disapproved of Wells marrying and having four children rather than giving all her energies to her causes. Just how Wells found time to be a wife and mother amid all her other activities — or why any man would have wanted to marry her, as she asks herself — is another of her tantalizing mysteries.
The five actresses, four of whom have appeared in previous productions of the play and have been joined by Janeece A. Freeman at Hartford Stage, are a true ensemble, though each comes joyfully to the fore regularly. Can they keep up their opening-night energy level eight times a week? Presumably so, inspired, no doubt, by Thompson’s theatrical skills and the extraordinarily brave life of Wells herself.
This play, which has already been seen at the North Carolina’s PlayMakers Rep, D.C.’s Arena Stage and the Actors Theater of Louisville, is scheduled next for Pittsburgh’s City Theater. It deserves even wider exposure.