MY LORD, WHAT A NIGHT! at Contemporary American Theater Festival: Clashing Views on Resisting Racism
My Lord, What a Night!, the two-act version of which (there was an earlier one-acter) is currently premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, is based on a kernel of historical fact. On April 16, 1937, African American singer Marian Anderson was refused accommodation at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, N.J., after having given a concert at Princeton University.
Physicist Albert Einstein, who resided in the town of Princeton as an employee of the Institute for Advanced Study, offered her shelter for the night, which she accepted. This led to a lifelong friendship between the two of them. From this seed of fact, Playwright Deborah Brevoort has grown a large fictional bush, including two historical figures who were not part of the original story (Abraham Flexner, the head of the Institute, and Mary Church Terrell, one of the earliest civil rights activists in the modern sense of the word), and fabricating a new history for the genesis of the Marian Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939.
There is a great tradition of fictionalized history on the stage (see, e.g., Shakespeare, William) and elsewhere. In encountering it, we audiences understand what we're getting. We anticipate that most plays, movies, TV shows and novels that purport to depict historical figures, no matter how realistic-seeming, will prove to have been largely made up. But in exchange for granting that poetic license, we will generally demand two things. We will want the fiction to be more diverting than the reality for which it substitutes; we'll ask for it to be more uplifting, relatable, understandable or just interesting. And we'll want there to be some kind of heightened clarity, ideally both narrative and moral, emerging from the cut corners and composite characters and made-up events. In some sense we ask for the artifice to tell us the truth. My Lord, What a Night! passes this twofold test, and has earned its license.
Adding Flexner and Terrell to the mix gives us some interesting history to chew on. Terrell represents (as Anderson does not) the activism that propelled the black civil rights movement; Terrell the character (portrayed by Lizann Mitchell) is continually suggesting demonstrations, press conferences, and finally the Lincoln Memorial concert. Already an old woman at the time of the action, her sprightly energy and optimism easily surpass Anderson's passivity and underline in a strange way the potential for self-defeat that Anderson (Angela Wildflower) must overcome. Flexner (Larry Paulsen) makes the opposite sort of dyad with Einstein (John Leonard Pielmeier); in that pair, it is Einstein who is the activist, who sees the depravity of both racism and antisemitism, and is keen to oppose them, while Flexner is cautious - for reasons that are revealed not to be negligible. The Institute is depicted (with what I understand to be only partial accuracy) as having been designed with the primary objective of saving some of the greatest European Jewish scholars from the Holocaust, subsisting on the generosity of donors who might be turned off by some of Einstein's outspokenness, or by the "scandal" of Einstein hosting the unmarried and African American Anderson for the night. Setting up these two pairs of characters pushing and pulling over the opportunities and dangers of activism makes for lively drama, however historically accurate or not it may all be.
Similarly, Brevoort patently aims to dramatize the way in which racism and antisemitism in the 1930s proceeded from the same roots and adopted the same tactics, and to suggest the ways in which those evils continue to stalk the world today. In a sense, we are far removed from that world; public accommodations like the Nassau Inn can no longer exclude visitors of any race, and no venue can do or seeks to do business like Constitution Hall, which set the stage for Anderson's concert by adhering to a white-performers-only clause in its contract, and driving Anderson to seek a different site. But Brevoort is surely also seeking to make us aware that we are sliding backward when we have a government normalizing racism by extolling so-called "fine people" among the Charlottesville racists, a counterpoint of sorts to the act of the FBI depicted in the play of labeling Einstein a security risk for opposing racism. When the Flexner character notes (in 1937) that our country allows admission to only a few of the Jews we could save from extermination, it echoes (intentionally, I have no doubt) what we are doing (in 2019) to Central Americans seeking entry to escape comparably dire threats.
This brings us to the first of the criticisms I heard from some of my fellow-theatergoers, i.e. that Brevoort is opportunistically exploiting an easy topicality. I guess my response is: so what? If a resemblance happens to exist between one's topic and current events, is it wrong to write about it? Would The Crucible (with its echoes of the then-current McCarthy era) not be susceptible to the same complaint? It is not as if My Lord, What a Night! does not stand on its own feet; the correspondence to today's issues is important, but the drama works.
The drama works because of the intriguing way the characters' ideas about how to act in response to the two provocative exclusions (first Nassau Inn and then Constitution Hall) shift repeatedly in response to new information, so that consensus is almost impossible to achieve, at least until the play's very end. Anderson seeks progress through song, unimpeachable behavior and an avoidance of politics; Einstein wants an end to both racism and antisemitism, and by the end is very worried about the Bomb; Terrell embraces confrontation because all else seems to fail; and Flexner tries hard to protect the Institute as a means of keeping the Holocaust from consuming absolutely all Jews, even though he can save only a few. ("I may not be a mathematician like you, Einstein, but I do know that a few are greater than none.") At least in the show, the owner of the Inn is also a donor to the Institute whom Flexner cannot afford to alienate. These tactical disagreements inevitably trigger larger discussions about the underlying issues in a dramatically urgent way.
This raises another criticism I heard: that it frequently seemed as if there was a black argument and a white argument, confined to one side of the stage or the other, with little cross-fertilization. I also came away with that impression; I went back and looked hard at the script, and see some justice to it, though less than I had initially sensed. But there would be dramatic justification for it in any event; despite the thematic correspondences between the two discussions, some of the tactical disputes are essentially intramural within one of the two respective communities on the stage. What matters more is that as each community's discussions come to an end, the members of the other get to observe and react in some fashion. It is less like two soliloquies and more like a tennis match, with the argument volleying back and forth.
Along somewhat similar lines, it was also argued to me that the play, which had started life as a one-acter devoted to the events of 1937, was elongated essentially by doubling it without changing the dramatic situation much. Again, I think the tennis match analogy applies; the fact that there is more than one set does not prove that the contest lacks interest. My view is that if you enjoyed Act I, you will enjoy Act II. And I did - and so, quite evidently, did the audience.
Let me, before moving on, mention one other criticism I heard, which is part of a much larger discussion, but which was levelled in my hearing at this particular play. This was a charge of appropriation because the black characters were being written by a white playwright. Whenever this kind of argument is put forward, there is apt to be a practical rejoinder, namely that if (as here) there are characters of more than one race, there would either have to be at least two playwrights collaborating or the play simply must be written by a writer who does not share a racial identity with one or more characters. But setting practicality aside, this argument assumes without much evidence that a writer of one race cannot write intelligently about and empathetically with characters of another. Yes, that exercise may be harder, and yes, proper respect for perspectives of others, particularly when the writer starts in a position of privilege, may fail. There may also be an unfortunate reliance on tropes that have been overworked, like "the white savior" who takes up so much attention that the work loses focus on nonwhite characters. But a blanket rejection of members of a dominant group writing about members of another is hard to accept, especially in an era when opportunities are dramatically opening up for playwrights of previously underrepresented backgrounds. (The databases that list playwright submission opportunities are replete with solicitations that pointedly exclude or discourage members of dominant groups.) And moving from the general to the particular, Brevoort is quoted in the program as repeatedly sharing in her husband's being harassed by police for driving while black. Her understanding of how the dynamics of race prejudice feel, from the perspective of those made objects of that prejudice, seems not merely theoretical.
Returning briefly to the play at hand, perhaps the most notable performance is Wildflower's as Anderson. Besides convincingly conveying all the traits one associates with Anderson, such as reserve, courtesy and deliberation, Wildflower is called upon to sing two songs in character. It would take a more educated ear than mine to determine how accurately she is channeling Anderson; the low fidelity of the historical recordings I've heard simply does not support an intelligent comparison. But Wildflower has a stunning voice, and riveted the crowd with her performance. I also liked Pielmeier's Einstein, which I felt conveyed the combination of whimsey and disheveled intellect for which his original was known. I cannot speak in any way to the historical accuracy of Paulsen and Mitchell's portrayals, but they certainly held the interest. And as usual with David Barber's sets, this one (the study of Einstein's Princeton home) is not only functional but convincing in its detail.
Overall, highly rated.
My Lord, What a Night, by Deborah Brevoort, directed by Ed Herendeen, presented through July 28 as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Frank Center Stage, 260 University Drive, on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $57-$67, at www.catf.org or 304/876-3473 | 800/999-2283.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman