Although little more than an extended conversation this play reveals much about two historic figures in United States race relations.



By Joel Benjamin



Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre, in association with the Castillo Theatre is presenting Clare Coss’ Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington, a fact-based but fictional play about two very important figures in the history of race relations in the United States.   W.E.B. DuBois was the leader of the NAACP and Mary White “May” Ovington was one of its founders and supporters.  She, an upper crust White woman with a long family history of forward thinking about race relations, was a go between among the various factions of the NAACP.  Dr. DuBois had begun to express radical ideas including the shocking idea of voluntary re-segregation which rocked this organization which was then dedicated to assimilation and equal rights.  He had shocked and alienated his board and his membership and was finally cracking a bit psychologically due to years of aborted efforts to correct America’s shortcomings.  This is the tense moment in which Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington is set.


The play takes place during a Sunday morning in June 1915 in the lower Fifth Avenue office of the NAACP.  But first we hear Dr. DuBois giving a lecture at Oberlin College about segregated services, parks, etc.  Once at the office Miss Ovington (Kathleen Chalfant) takes advantage of the quiet time to catch up on some work, but is interrupted by Dr. DuBois (Timothy Simonson) who wants to refine his letter of resignation, something of an ongoing project.   Miss Ovington updates a map that indicates lynchings of Blacks by state with pushpins which further perturbs Dr. DuBois.


Bit by bit this extended conversation covers many subjects:  the role of the NAACP’s rabble-rousing publication The Crisis, their own histories, the lack of adequate progress in their mutual desire for racial justice and even the proper playing of spoons.  Dr. DuBois plays recordings of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to which they dance leading to sweetly humorous attempts at social dancing.  He frets over his resignation letter.  He also ponders her scent and, in the course of helping her place a symbolic banner outside the office window, grabs hold of her, an action which leads to an embrace.


Here is where Ms. Coss enters iffy dramatic territory, adding romantic overtones to the otherwise accurate biographical data.  She even has Miss Ovington say, in the midst of an embrace, “I cannot suppress the woman in me.”  This distorts the real story, twisting it into romance novel territory,  implying that white women had ulterior motives for their devotion to this good cause.


Ms. Chalfant is her usual luminous self.  Her Miss Ovington is clearly a tough cookie, a fighter.  She even makes the romantic twists palatable by the sheer force of her full-bodied performance.


Mr. Simonson seems a tad young for the part.  Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington were, in fact, just about the same age.  Otherwise, his youth works for him, explaining his energy and devotion to both his cause and his feelings for Miss Ovington.


They work together beautifully with subtle interplay of glances and body language.


The set by Chris Cumberbatch is evocative of the period as are the costumes by Ali Turns.  Lonné Moretton’s little bits of choreography were wonderful in their accuracy and dramatic subtlety.


Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington is an appealing glimpse at a historical partnership.  If it leads to further study of these two and their contributions to racial equality, so much the better.



Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington (through February 16, 2014)

Castillo Theatre

543 West 42nd St. (between 10th & 11th Aves.)

New York, NY

Tickets:  212-941-1234 or

More Information:  www.NEWFEDERALTHEATRE.COM