Sunday, February 03, 2002

Constant Star (Dobama)

'CONSTANT STAR'--an effective history lesson at Dobama

Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells. While the first four names may be familiar, the last one, Ida B. Wells probably is not. Those who have taken US history classes, even those that attempted to give a voice to African American achievements and concerns, were probably not introduced to Wells. Playwright Tazewell Thompson’s desire to right the historical wrong gave birth to 'CONSTANT STAR,' now in its Ohio premiere at Dobama Theatre.

Operating under the motto, “I was put on this earth to agitate,” Wells, who was born in Mississippi in 1862, was a slave for the first six months of her life and spent the rest fighting for the rights of free blacks and justice for all. Maybe the lack of historical attention was due to her style. She operated under an umbrella of no compromise and not pulling punches. Her mother had left her with the motto, “Remember, girl, no one is better than you.” Ida B. Wells seemed to wholly embrace that philosophy. Her disdain for Frederick Douglas, who she considered an “Uncle Tom” and for the NAACP, which she felt “accomplished nothing” were not popular stands.

Wells pursued her beliefs in earnest. She sued a railroad for their attempt to force her to sit in the smoking car in spite of the civil rights laws that guaranteed black passage in first class. As a journalist she conducted a lifelong campaign against lynching and she led a boycott of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition when she felt it lacked highlights of African American achievements. She led Blacks to believe they could defend themselves. She didn’t believe in turning the others cheek. She once challenged a group of whites by stating, “If I go down, some of you will go down with me.” This was a woman of arrogance, self-centeredness and determination. In spite of her activity, maybe another reason for her lack of historical note was that she has no specific accomplishment to which her name is tied. She has no “I Have a Dream” speech, no attitude changing bus boycott, nor a March on Washington.

Thompson’s play is powerful, but talky. It is repetitious, too long and needs heavy cutting to make it compact and effective. The musical interludes, which take us from one scene to another are well-conceived and effective.

Dobama’s production is well-honed by director Margaret Ford-Taylor. Her cast of five African American women, playing interchangeable parts as Wells at various times in her life, as well as supporting characters, were generally fine. Though there were some line lapses, the ideas flowed well. Especially effective was Yolanda Davis, a junior at Kent State, who commanded the stage whenever she spoke. There was a glint in her eye and an edge to her voice that were both powerful and compassionate. J. Elaine Linzy also stood out.

Capsule judgement: CONSTANT STAR has an important message for all audience members, no matter their race. It is a play to be seen, thought about, and talked about.