Writer: Amiri Baraka
Director: Woodie King, Jr.
Reviewer: Jamie Rosler
It is fitting that Amiri Baraka’s final play, receiving its posthumous world premiere as part of New Federal Theatre’s 45th season, looks at the evening of another prominent man’s life—a man who had a profound impact on Baraka’s own ideas and practices. Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. DuBois), directed by Woodie King, Jr., looks at the 1951 McCarthy Era trial of activist, intellectual, and founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. DuBois, and closes with his passing in Ghana in 1963. A time and a figure from American history that most people probably don’t know enough about, with highly tangible ripples into the current state of our nation.
Cutting from the courtroom to a barber shop, the barber shop to a salon, the salon to the courtroom, and occasionally to elsewhere and back again, King aims for a “filmic” production. That can be a risk in live theatre, a medium that is very much not film. For King, the risk pays off more than it misses the mark, but there are some notable drawbacks to the marriage of these two media.
There are very short scenes with full set changes into and out of the different locations, and while the remarkably well-oiled run crew makes those transitions as seamlessly as possible, there are just too many complete changes of set, too often. It stilts the pacing of the show, holding back the potential for the audience’s investment in the story and in the characters (which is great, but could be greater). The use of video and projection onstage is another marriage between the media that works brilliantly most of the time, but is sometimes overused, creating a distraction rather than adding to the wholeness of the work.
Baraka and King were close collaborators, and there is little doubt that King’s direction is as true to the playwright’s intentions as any director could have been, but this reviewer wonders if Baraka’s final script is in fact a screenplay that has been fitted to the stage, rather than a purely theatrical work. Even with this perceived handicap, Most Dangerous Man in America is a splendid production.
Art McFarland and Petronia Paley—playing W.E.B. DuBois and Shirley Graham Du Bois—are magnificent together. They each possess a poise and a serenity in the face of their adversities, that is stronger than any show of fury and outrage could be. They are serious, but never grave. The ensemble plays wonderfully together, and gives itself fully to the production.
Deep themes are put squarely out front, and even in the context of political rallies and courtroom addresses, we are not lectured or spoon-fed isms, of which there are certainly a few very present in this story.
While not a perfect theatrical execution, this meaningful and historical world premiere will leave you personally moved and politically aware. It is uplifting, with deep, sturdy roots.
Runs until 28th June 2015