An Ode to Bayard Rustin
by Joey Saunders
Bayard Rustin was an openly gay black man who helped change the world. A play about him has been mounted by Kansas City Repertory Theatre on Copaken Stage. “Blueprints to Freedom” is a dense, ambitious, educational production that I would recommend especially to LGBTQetc and black theatregoers.
All but erased from our history books, Rustin, once a nightclub singer in Harlem, became a civil rights mastermind who thanklessly orchestrated one of history’s most memorable nonviolent protests, 1963’s March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The play’s action takes place during the two months prior to the march. When the movement’s leadership, including Dr. King, appoint A. Philip Randolph to direct an unprecedented mass gathering in Washington, D.C. Randolph says he’ll agree only if Rustin leads logistically. The problem is, a little less than two years previous, the civil rights leadership, again including Dr. King, had shunned Rustin, seeing his gayness as a liability to the movement’s, and Dr. King’s, image.
Randolph ultimately convinces King and co. that Rustin is indisposable for the magnitudinous march and “Blueprints” begins when Randolph comes to deliver the good news. Rustin, played by the play’s writer, Michael Benjamin Washington, accepts the nearly impossible task despite worries that two months is nowhere near the time he needs and the idea of working, albeit for the greater good, for men who had more or less betrayed him could end with him being used and cast aside once the job was done. Washington plays Rustin with a theatricality that, at times, seems better suited for a side-character that drinks and makes little quips in a completely different play. I suppose from any footage or photographs I’ve seen of Rustin, I was expecting something just as erudite, but earthier. It isn’t a bad performance, but I found myself curious to see another actor in the role. The supporting cast is mostly wonderful.
Antonio T.J. Johnson gives a resonant, venerable performance as Randolph. Martin Luther King Jr. is played by the delightfully diminutive Ro Boddie; the real Dr. King was about 5 feet 7 inches. Washington has written a flawed, anxious King that remains respectful to the memory of the saint-like figure while exploring his humanity. In his brief scenes, Boddie does well with this exploration. Speaking of brief scenes, Mat Hostetler does his best in a one-off scene meant to raise tensions in the play’s slowing middle section. Hostetler plays Rustin’s ex-lover, Davis Platt, Jr. and tries to inject him with realism and vulnerability. Unfortunately, Platt, as-written, seems more like a plot-device than a three-dimensional character. However, Mandi Masden, as Miriam Caldwell, the only wholly fictional character, is the unintended heart of the show. Masden, as Rustin’s burgeoning young feminist intern, brings an energy and Judy-Garland-like sincerity to the stage.
And what a stage it is. Copaken, with its narrow, oversteep house seating, is hardly an ideal venue, but the warmth and restraint of the production design is absolutely commendable. There are some fun moments of technical wizardry as well. A chalkboard writes on itself to underline some of the March’s key ideas. This quickly goes from being impressive to rather distracting. But all is forgiven when a scenic shift in the play’s final scenes expands the world of the play with flourish of understated design.
Yes, it’s overly dense and ambitious. In addition to trying to fit a bit about gay, women’s, and black rights in, there’s a thematic thread about spirituality that never quite lands and the bulk of the play’s emotional heft relies heavily on our familiarity with the movement’s inherently stirring images. But, Lucie Tiberghien directs with a good sense of blocking and pacing. Her deftness, plus Washington’s ability to inject the more expository scenes with some truly funny levity, make the piece’s shortcomings feel venial. It’s not as well-written as the Rep’s previous foray into producing new work, last year’s “The Who and The What” by Ayad Akhtar, “Blueprints to Freedom” has a certain perseverant power to it that makes it worth the price of admission.
“Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” runs through November 15 at Copaken Stage, downtown.
Tickets are available online or at the Box Office.