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Theatre in Review: Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois)(New Federal Theatre/Castillo Theatre)

Art McFarland. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Most Dangerous Man in America is the second play in two seasons that New Federal Theatre has produced about the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois; perhaps on the third try the results will be a little less wooden. This is apparently the final work of playwright/poet/provocateur Amiri Baraka, who, when he was LeRoi Jones, set the theatre world on fire with the play Dutchman, and who, only a few years ago, lost his position as New Jersey's poet laureate after writing "Somebody Blew Up America," which implicated Israel in the events of 9/11. With those items on his resume and that title, one has every right to expect a play that ruffles a few feathers.

Instead, Most Dangerous Man in America is the creakiest history lesson imaginable, a play that, in its laudable desire to instruct audiences, forgets to be a play at all. What action there is focuses on his trial, in 1950, for subversive activities. An unabashed fan of the Soviet Union, he joined various peace organizations of the sort that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night; as chairman of the Peace Information Center, he advocated worldwide nuclear disarmament. The government charged that PIC took its orders from Moscow, and Du Bois, as such, was acting as the agent of a foreign government. There surely is drama in this situation, only no one involved seems able to identify it.

According to press reports, Most Dangerous Man in America was edited down from a draft of 250 pages (approximately four hours), which may account for its bewildering structure. A short scene featuring Du Bois will alternate with a short scene, set in a barber shop or beauty salon, in which working class folk keep tabs on what is happening to him, via the newspapers and radio. And when I say short, I mean six lines of dialogue or less. In Woodie King, Jr.'s staging, each requires a substantial change of set; I can't tell you how often the courtroom where Du Bois is tried is hauled on and off the stage. Most Dangerous Man in America runs only about 100 minutes, but a substantial chunk of it is spent sitting in the dark, watching stagehands shift furniture around.

It is interesting to note that, once Du Bois ran afoul of the government, many of his supporters turned against him. In the play, Howard University cancels a birthday celebration for him and the NAACP, which he helped found, moves to put plenty of daylight between them. Once the trial gets started, however, it is so obvious that the state has no case against him that there is no drama at all. The actor who plays the prosecuting attorney leers and sneers at Du Bois, but his arguments prove feeble in the extreme; meanwhile, Du Bois' supporters sit behind him, going through the telegrams sent in support and dropping plenty of names. ("Pablo Neruda, of Chile, sends his support.") No one in Most Dangerous Man in America is introduced without a brief explanation: Walter White is, we are told, head of the NAACP. When John Rogge, the state's witness, takes the stand, Du Bois' attorney loses no opportunity to rename him "Rogue." Baraka, who always prefers to tell, rather than show, has Shirley Graham, Du Bois' wife, regard Rogge and say, "My God. Look at the way his clothes are hanging on him! Where is the confident, erect chairman of the Peace Council we know?" Such are the wages of sin, I suppose. Meanwhile, supportive telegrams pour in from Langston Hughes, Mary McLeod Bethune, the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dmitri Shostakovich, and the vice-premier of the People's Republic of China. (They might think about keeping that last one under wraps.)

Throughout the trial, Du Bois, played by Art McFarland, remains serenely above it all. After his acquittal, he and Shirley travel the world, making nice with various global dictators. Mao Tse-tung says, "Mistakes, mistakes, please Dr. Du Bois. We in China have made more mistakes than anyone. We try to learn from them." Everyone on stage has a good laugh after that. Shirley chimes in, "The women of China are becoming free," adding that, after all, they have taken up wearing pants. Even on the minimal evidence presented her, it is understandable why Du Bois would take a dim view of democracy as practiced in the United States, but presenting him as the good buddy of regimes that massacred millions of people does him no favors. (The script calls for "Mao and DuBois together, laughing like two school boys.") Most Dangerous Man in America wants to celebrate the life of a dissenter. Instead, it makes him look like an idiot.

Sadly, with its halting structure, lack of drama, and dance sequences that come out of nowhere, Most Dangerous Man in America isn't a stageworthy piece of writing. Design values are minimal with the exception of Bill Toles' video projections, which include an evocative album of images of black audiences applauding Du Bois, political demonstrations, a barbershop window, and the Kremlin, among others. But this production fails to honor either Du Bois or Baraka. The great play about Du Bois remains yet to be written. -- David Barbour

(12 June 2015)

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