A Great History Lesson That Leaves Us Wanting More
From My Seat in the House
Mari Lyn Henry
Steeped in the history of racial inequality and the emergence of the NAACP as the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely recognized civil rights organization, Dr. Dubois and Miss Ovington dramatizes their relationship as members of the board. In response to the horrific practice of lynching primarily in the Southern states, Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, both descendants of abolitionists, were moved to become activists for racial justice. Dr. W. E. B. Dubois was one of seven African Americans who attended the first meeting. Dubois was the first African American to receive a doctoral degree. In 1910, as director of publications and research he founded The Crisis, the official journal of the NAACP.
Before the actual dialogue begins, Dr. Dubois, extremely tall, and very distinguished in a three piece suit with a walking stick, enters with a lantern slide projector and shows photographic evidence of racial discrimination including being denied entrance to the public library, the swimming pool in the Bronx and the park’s playground, being denied membership in the unions or postal services since President Wilson has re-segregated the Federal Office Buildings. In DC only whites are permitted in Rock Creek Park, only whites can be admitted to the ice cream parlors, and the cemeteries in the United States are segregated.
The play is set on a Sunday in the summer of 1915 at the offices of the NAACP in New York City. On the upstage wall is a national map with thumbtacks showing where lynchings have occurred in the South. Dr. Dubois enters and presents her with his fourth letter of resignation unless, among other grievances, he gets complete autonomy as editor of The Crisis so he can crusade for the dignity of ten million “negro souls.” But the “spinster maiden lady” is a true friend who knows how to deal with his outbursts, lack of compromise, and dark moods. She seeks his help to place a cloth banner (“A Man Was Lynched Yesterday”) on a pole as a military parade can be heard. She is rescued from falling out of the window when Dr. Dubois grabs her waist and pulls her to safety, causing her to blush. Throughout the play there are moments of intimacy between them that we know will never be consummated. Dr. Dubois is married, his wife and college-age daughter live in London. The tragic loss of his young son from Diphtheria, when white doctors wouldn’t come to his aid, caused a rift in his relationship with her.
In 1915 D. W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation demeaned the Negro and showed in graphic detail the Ku Klux Klan’s persecution and power. There were marches of protest throughout the country furthering the mission of the NAACP. Dr. Dubois, a prolific writer, had published The Negro, a history of the people in Africa. In 1911, Dr. Dubois and Miss Ovington had attended the first Universal Races Congress at the University of London where he presented his paper “The Negro Race in the United States of America.“
In Dr. Dubois and Miss Ovington, we meet two brilliant, human, and flawed individuals who reminisce about their lives as pacifists, advocates for social justice and crusaders for peace and crossing the color lines. A poignant memory is shared when he tells her while he was a student at Fisk in Nashville, he visited the backwoods of the plantations to teach kids, to reopen their abandoned school and he learned how to play the spoons. She rises and dances to “Ball and the Jack” as he plays them. Afterwards they sit looking at each other. He is aware of her lavender fragrance, she touches his face, they hold hands. No kiss, no consummation, no regrets.
Playwright Clare Coss has done her homework. She has lived with these people and creates historical characters who have inspired her and captured her imagination. Timothy Simonson, who looks like the photo of W.E.B DuBois. is well cast and captures the mercurial nature of this great man. He is able to hold his own with the remarkable Kathleen Chalfant as the elegant, educated, cultured, feisty, flirtatious and passionate Mary White Ovington. Direction by Gabrielle L. Kurlander is first rate as is the sound design which includes Joplin’s music rare recording of a spiritual, the military parade and ambient chimes, set design, costumes and lighting.
Dr. Dubois and Miss Ovington
Written by Clare Coss
Produced by Woodie King Jr’s New Federal Theatre
In association with Castillo Theatre
For more information, please visit www.newfederaltheatre.com or call NFT at 212-353-1176.
Dates: January 17 – February 16, 2014
Running Time: 90 minutes
*Photo: Ronald L. Glassman