Up From Slavery
Ever heard of someone by the name of Ida B. Wells? She is the largely unknown but fascinating subject of Constant Star, a beautifully produced study of determination and courage now playing at the Florida Stage in Manalapan. Wells was an American original. Born a black slave in the Civil War, she grew up headstrong, self-assured, and articulate. First as an educator, then as a journalist, Wells was passionately committed to the pursuit of justice for her race and for her sex, this at a time of fierce, often savage reactionary opposition.
Constant Star tracks her eventful life, a tale that is not only instructive but inspiring. After her remarkable parents died from yellow fever when Ida was fourteen, authorities planned to send her younger brothers and sisters to foster homes. Ida fought to keep the family together, brandishing a rifle to demonstrate her resolve. As a young woman, she was denied a first-class seat in an all-white coach, despite paying for a first-class ticket. Hauled off the train bodily, she promptly filed a lawsuit against the railroad company. She lost that battle, of course, but not the war. She led a long crusade against lynchings, resulting in long-overdue national attention. She spoke out against a wide range of other evils, large and small -- from smoking and tobacco chewing to sexism and political corruption. Despite poverty, prejudice, and violence, nothing stopped her. When her Memphis newspaper exposed lynching as government-sanctioned murder, her offices were burned to the ground -- but she simply moved to Chicago and started all over again.
Constant Star portrays the events of Wells's life in simple but vivid style, using her own words drawn from letters and newspaper articles. Much of this writing is memorable: "I was put on this earth to agitate," Wells wrote, and she uses the power of her fiery words to do just that. But Wells's fire was balanced by poetry. Lamenting the murderous racism of her day, she says, "[If I could] I would gather my race in my arms and fly away from this place." The impact of Wells's ideas can still be felt. Much of what Wells wrote about -- her insistence on equal rights for women, her discussion of interracial sex, her outrage at corrupt politicians -- comes across as entirely contemporary.
Writer/director Tazewell Thompson has crafted a lyrical, imaginative vision to portray this remarkable saga. Instead of one actress to play his heroine, Thompson uses five, as the Wells persona is passed from one to another in fluid succession; the ensemble also plays numerous minor characters in Wells's story. Thompson augments the narrative with a series of Negro spirituals, sung a cappella to tremendous theatrical effect. In this he is aided immensely by Dianne Adams McDowell's complex, gorgeous vocal arrangements and the musical direction of David Holliday.
The production is ably supported by a fine design team. Kent Goetz's unit set, a spare, dingy atelier, features a large letter press printing machine and two antique typewriters perched on bare wooden tables, word machines that were Wells's weapons against injustice. Richard Crowell's moody, mysterious lighting adds romance and warmth, as do Merrily Murray-Walsh's detailed nineteenth-century costumes, all muted browns, greens, and grays until a sudden splash of color blazes forth in the second act. Only Fabian Obispo's jarring sci-fi sound design seems out of place in Thompson's elegant production. The direction reveals Thompson's extensive experience staging operas -- which Constant Star in several ways resembles. There's a rhythmic, musical sense to his staging as the cast shifts from solo speeches to group scenes, from one brief episode to the next, from one single voice for Wells to five. But of the many assets here it is the acting ensemble -- Nadiyah S. Dorsey, Quanda Johnson, Tracey Conyer Lee, Laiona Michelle, and Gayle Turner -- that is the five-pointed star of this show. Offering strong acting skills and a remarkable, multi-octave range of singing voices, this beautiful, graceful cast is endlessly watchable. Each actress brings different qualities to Wells's character, to wonderful kaleidoscopic effect.
While Constant Star offers many pleasures, it does suffer from maladies common to most biodramas, chiefly the lack of dramatic fundamentals -- ongoing character conflicts, which can build suspense or momentum. Wells's life rolls out, and certain moments -- the description of horrific lynchings, an account of Wells's romance and wedding -- are thoroughly absorbing. But real-life narrative does not necessarily result in dramatic payoffs, and Ida Wells's story is no exception. While the first act has the surprise of the five-actress/one-character concept and the storytelling format, by the second act these ideas are familiar, and Thompson seems to run out of staging ideas. As a result the production drifts somewhat in the late going and its ending feels less than satisfying. But what comes before certainly is, and is well worth a visit.
Besides being a dynamic depiction of a unique personality, Constant Star is also a meditation on living well. Modern American culture seems obsessed with notions of success and spends endless time and money pursuing that illusive goal. Here is one life full of creativity, courage, romance, passion, love, honor, wisdom, integrity, and style. If anyone is seeking an example of true success, look no further than Ida B. Wells.
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