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Theatre in Review: Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington (New Federal Theatre/Castillo Theatre)

Kathleen Chalfant and Timothy Simonson. Photo: Ronald L. Glassman

Playwright Clare Coss casts a light on a fascinating relationship -- not to mention an underdramatized bit of American history -- in Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington, and it's a shame she doesn't do more with it. W. E. B. Du Bois was a titanic figure, a scholar, activist, and intellectual, who, as director of publicity and research for the fledging NAACP, was the driving force behind The Call, a publication that reached hundreds of thousands of readers in its mission of exposing the poisonous effects of racism. Mary White Ovington was one of those remarkable early 20th-century ladies -- like Jane Addams and Frances Perkins -- who, defying the traditional expectations for women of their class, joined the settlement house movement, becoming key players in advocating for a more just society.

Coss puts the two of them down in the NAACP New York office on a Sunday in 1915. Du Bois has arrived to dictate his resignation letter, and Ovington has come to talk him out of his decision. This isn't necessarily a crisis -- apparently, Du Bois was always resigning from the NAACP -- but the playwright adds a number of interesting details. For one thing, Du Bois is the only black man in the organization's leadership, an unthinkable situation today, and a source of constant friction here. It also becomes clear that Du Bois and Ovington are attracted to each other, an unthinkable situation then, further complicated by Du Bois' unhappy long-distance marriage.

With its background of internecine political struggles, racial politics, and forbidden attractions plus a cast of characters that includes one of the most restless intellectuals of his time and an activist who cut against the grain of popular opinion, Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington contains the stuff of powerful drama. But very little happens; the characters spend most of their time telling each other things they should already know, so the audience will be duly instructed. Coss seems uninterested in exploring anything that would contradict either character's established historic profile; for example, if Du Bois and Ovington had romantic feelings for each other, didn't that prove disruptive to their careers? Did their relationship cost them anything emotionally? Did they act on their feelings? The playwright doesn't say.

Instead, we get a rather stilted two-hander that seems designed to inform audiences about the title characters' accomplishments. Fair enough, I suppose, and the play may have an afterlife in school productions. But even young audiences deserve a bit of drama. If Coss' play doesn't quite amount to hagiography, it comes awfully close.

Under the direction of Gabrielle L. Kurlander, neither Kathleen Chalfant nor Timothy Simonson seems at home in the title roles, possibly because their jobs consist almost entirely of delivering exposition. I'm unfamiliar with Simonson's work, but Chalfant gives what is arguably her most artificial performance. Even great actors need more than the stick figures they are handed here.

The rest of the production is acceptable given its obvious low budget. Chris Cumberbatch's set is a fairly detailed representation of two rooms in the NAACP office, with a view of the city through a window. Ali Turns' costumes and Antoinette Tynes' lighting get the job done. Bill Toles' sound design includes a wide array of effects, rendered in solid fashion.

I'm not sorry to have seen Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington, if only because it makes clear that the early history of the NAACP is well worth looking into. Perhaps another playwright will take up the task of tapping into this rich vein of material.--David Barbour

(3 February 2014)

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