Let us pause to reflect on those courageous African-American women whose names are forever enshrined as valiant crusaders against the injustice of racism. Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and . . . uh . . . hmmm . . . wasn't there a Martina Luther King?
Not to demean the sacrifice and struggle of black women in the march toward civil rights in this most historically racist of nations—we are, after all, going on 500 years of institutionalized racism—but the simple reality is that for every Septima Clark and Angela Davis, there are a legion of men. History, as always, is written by the victors, and regardless of skin color or economic station, the person standing atop whatever dung heap is regarded as the palace du jour is usually sporting some kind of fleshy appendage between the legs.
For proof of just how marginalized women remain in the status-quo narrative of civil rights, consider Ida B. Wells. A fiercely outspoken and intelligent journalist who battled tirelessly for most of her 69 years against institutionalized and personalized racism, she is at best a footnote in most histories of civil rights. This for a woman who helped found the NAACP, was the primary advocate for bringing the horrific reality of lynching to public consciousness, and served as a most trenchant gadfly to those leaders of the black community who believed accommodation and acceptance of their lot was the only way toward equality.
Fortunately, Tazewell Thompson is familiar with Wells' story and has brought it to full, vibrant life with Constant Star, an exceptionally affecting play currently at the Laguna Playhouse. Starring five actresses who portray Wells throughout the course of her life, the play—which Thompson also directs—serves as both a justifiable canonization of this headstrong, arrogant and eminently compassionate woman and a stark reminder of how far we've come in this country in terms of racism—and how far we still need to go.
Thompson's play is a mostly linear look at Wells' life, and the circumstances that conditioned her to a lifelong battle against injustice: the lynchings of her best friends in Memphis, her unsuccessful quest to use existing laws to force integration, the frustration of being an American citizen in a time and place when that did not necessarily mean you had a vote or a voice. Though Constant Star plays out in an easily digestible narrative, it is punctuated throughout with Negro spirituals, which serve as a rousing, exhilarating chorus that comments on and propels the story forward.
Delivered by the women who enact Wells' story, the spirituals serve as a narrative counterpoint to the litany of atrocities that Wells battles throughout her life—from the obvious injustice of white Christian mobs burning pregnant black women to the subtler injustice of a woman never feeling she is truly part of a country she passionately believes in. But no matter how frustrating or ugly the incidents in her life may be, the presence of these soaring, beautifully rendered spirituals are reminders that while the flesh may be weak, battered and beaten, the soul remains intact. That's what gives this play—as well as this production—an illuminating inner life. It's also what helps transform what could be a relatively simple theatrical experience of Black Appreciation into a far more profound and resonant experience of Human Appreciation.
CONSTANT STAR AT THE LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-2787. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 7 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 5. $22.50-$54.