Tazewell Thompson is a director to watch. He takes his own “Constant Star,” which might have been talky and static in other hands, and fills it with fresh dramatic and musical touches. Utilizing five excellent actresses to portray fiercely dedicated civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, Thompson flings them freely around the stage, so that the impact of their emotions are multiplied by movement.
His approach in this West Coast premiere is daring because it courts confusion. Cast members Quanda Johnson, Laiona Michelle, Tracey Conyer Lee, Nadiyah S. Dorsey and Gayle Turner could, for example, have represented Ida at different junctures of her life, making it easy for us to sort them out. Instead, they’re all the same woman at the same time here, batting the ball back and forth. Once it’s clear who’s playing who, the production gathers increasing steam.
Wells (1862-1931) was a relatively unsung heroine, the daughter of brutalized slaves who became a suffragette, newspaper publisher, co-founder of the NAACP and the single most significant leader of the anti-lynching campaign in America. Thompson unflinchingly depicts these atrocities. We hear about a woman who was hung upside down and doused with gasoline, before attackers slit her stomach open and cut out her baby. Thompson deals with this issue three times, making it clear that heinous crimes against African Americans are more uncomfortably recent than many would care to believe.
The script is notable for its refusal to soften and sentimentalize Wells. From the beginning, she was relentlessly confrontational, crying, “I was put on this earth to agitate.” One of the play’s most disturbing incidents occurs when Wells — 70 years before Rosa Parks refused to change her bus seat — is tossed from a moving train for refusing to surrender her first class seat and go to a smoking car. Wells sued and won a $500 settlement, a judgment later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Except for a few interchanges between Wells and other characters, the actresses narrate her history in documentary style, and the script reiterates points too frequently in the second act. The play would be even more powerful if shortened.
Another problem is concluding the first act with a devastating lynching monologue, then switching in act two to Wells’ romance and marriage. Despite questionable placement, the material is important, since it allows Wells to express her needs and inform her fiance that she wants freedom and retention of her own name. Robert Wierzel’s expert lighting, showing her husband in shadow while we view her with total clarity, effectively dramatizes Wells’ desire for an individual identity.
The concept of knitting together various vignettes with gospel standards works extraordinarily well. All five voices are first-rate, and the expert a cappella harmonies conceived by Dianne Adams McDowell supply a vivid sense of background and solidarity. Merrily Murray-Walsh’s elegant, predominantly gray costumes deserve credit for making the point that people should look at their neighbors in shades of gray, rather than through the separating bar of black and white.