Regional Reviews: San Diego
Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin
La Jolla Playhouse has been developing a play about the 1963 March on Washington, and that development has resulted in their world premiere production of Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin. Written by and starring Michael Benjamin Washington, this "ode" pays an eloquent tribute to a complex and relatively unsung hero of the civil rights movement.
Bayard Rustin (Mr. Washington) was a long-time associate of civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph (Antonio T. J. Johnson). The two men organized a 1941 March on Washington as a means of ending employment discrimination. The march was never held because President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination in defense contracts. Both Randolph and Rustin advocated a non-violent approach to civil disobedience, and they persuaded Martin Luther King Jr. (Ro Boddie) to sign on to such an approach. They also shared a love of Shakespeare.
Rustin was homosexual (he was uncomfortable with the word "gay"), and he had been arrested on a morals charge. Rustin had a long-standing intimate relationship with Davis Platt Jr. (Mat Hostetler), a white man. Fear of how supporters would react to Rustin's sexuality caused civil rights leaders to disassociate themselves from him. Rustin was also a deeply religious man, having affiliated himself with his mother's Quaker faith.
As Blueprints to Freedom begins, A. Philip Randolph has re-established contact with Rustin to serve as his deputy for organizing the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin, in turn, hires Miriam Caldwell (Mandi Masden) as his assistant, and the two of them set out to pull together a huge event in a matter of months. Along the way, they will debate the plans for and the details of the march, deal with crises as they arise, and confront once more the fact of Rustin's sexuality and its relationship to the success of the march.
Mr. Washington's play relies on actual texts wherever those texts exist. Its characters, except, apparently, Miriam Caldwell, are based on actual people, and perhaps the Caldwell character was created from a composite of more than one person. The characters speak in a formal way; some might characterize their speech as stilted. Rustin's character has the most depth, but to understand him is to take him on his own terms. He's an outcast and yet an insider. He loves his partner, but he sends him away. He's deeply religious and believes in divine revelation, but he's frustrated that none of God's will has lately been revealed to him. He's sure that the March on Washington can never be organized in the time allowed, and yet it does get organized, though the audience sees little of the details of that effort.
And so, the play lurches along in a fascinating but also frustrating manner. There are at least two false endings before the real one, and while ending the play at either early mark might have been more emotionally satisfying than the final one, it would also be less complete.
Director Lucie Tiberghien realizes that there might be a lot for audiences to take in, and she facilitates the talking with cleverly designed projections (by John Narun). Neil Patel's scenic design allows for a variety of settings, including the March on Washington itself. There's also good work on display from the rest of the creative team: Beth Goldenberg's costume design; Lap Chi Chu's lighting design; Joe Huppert's sound design and music; and Charles G. LaPointe's wig design.
Mr. Washington is on stage for nearly the whole hour and forty minute playing time, and his performance dominates the story. Ms. Masden nearly proves his equal, as a woman who also represents an overlooked minority in the civil rights movement. Mr. Boddie evokes Dr. King well without imitating him, and I found Mr. Platt's scene to be wrenching to watch.
Mr. Johnson, a San Diego audience favorite, took over his role at the last minute, and he was still a little unsteady on some of his lines at the performance I saw. But he invests the Randolph character with the dignity and wisdom that is needed to overcome Rustin's doubts and self-loathing.
The Bayard Rustin story is an important one on many levels. His organizational talent made this march the one that the entire nation remembered. His perspicacity in drafting the march's demands neatly encapsulated what was missing (and, sadly, what is still missing) from the American Dream. Because Rustin refused to live a lie, his story is little known. And yet, he's in many ways as or more important than the leaders whose names many recognize.
Performances continue through October 4, 2015, Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00pm; Sunday at 7:00pm; Saturday/Sunday at 2:00pm at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037. Tickets are available by calling (858) 550-1010 or by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org.
La Jolla Playhouse presents Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin by Michael Benjamin Washington. A co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien, with Neil Patel, scenic design; Beth Goldenberg, costume design; Lap Chi Chu, lighting design; Joe Huppert, sound design; and Charles G. LaPointe, wig design.
The cast includes Ro Boddie, Antonio T.J. Johnson, Mandi Masden, Mat Hostetler, and Michael Benjamin Washington.