Musical rescues Rustin from obscurity

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Doug Deuchler

Few of us recognize the name Bayard Rustin. For years I was librarian in a predominantly African-American high school where every February I assisted hundreds of students doing research for their annual Black History reports. If teachers allowed the kids to simply "pick a person," their choice was nearly always one of what I called The Big Three: Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, or Rosa Parks. If they were assigned a specific individual off a long list of famous folks, there were aviators and inventors, blues singers and jazz composers, but never once did I even see the name Bayard Rustin.

Rustin, a key civil rights leader who was an out and proud gay man and a former Communist, carried far too much baggage. His full contribution could never be fully acknowledged during his lifetime. Even now Rustin continues to slip through the cracks of history.

The Eye of the Storm, a new musical drama about Rustin's life, now playing at Open Door Theater, is an exciting production that rescues the brilliant tactician of the movement from historical obscurity. It deserves to be seen, as it showcases electrifying performances, wonderful music, and bold dialogue. This premiere work by McKinley Johnson features music and lyrics by Johnson, David Taylor and Marshall Titus. Johnson directs his talented all-male cast with a swift pace. This fascinating show will undoubtedly change how you view the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. But, as with many new scripts, it's not fully there yet.

I know Eye focuses on Rustin's political involvement, but it's difficult to get a real handle on the personality of the protagonist. We care about Rustin but we never really get to know him. He remains somewhat elusive.

Though the energetic music is irresistible, songs like "Get On the Bus and Ride With Me" don't always move the story forward. There's repetition and blurriness, as the plot goes back and forth in its time warp.

The show identifies Rustin as a gay man, yet the generally no-nonsense script seems reticent to actually depict his homosexuality. The dialogue is frank, peppered with the "n-word" and the "f-word." There's even a male-on-male kiss late in the show. But for the most part, Rustin's gayness remains the elephant in the parlor. We witness what happens to him, but we don't hear any of his own thoughts or see what he's feeling. Apparently it's the "don't ask, don't tell" school of dramatic disclosure.

Renardo Johnson does a fine job with the somewhat underwritten lead role.

Rustin, who did much early protest work before the actual movement was launched, was jailed numerous times, and in the early 1940s was sentenced to 30 days of hard labor on a chain gang for refusing to move to the back of the bus - a full decade and a half before Rosa Parks' act of civil disobedience drew national attention. He spent much time in British-controlled India, learning the nonviolent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi. Rustin brought that to Dr. King and became his key advisor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Though he was later marginalized by black militants of the later '60s and '70s, Rustin never abandoned his pacifist stance.

The other roles feel more developed while Rustin remains a man of mystery. An arrest on a 1950s "morals charge," for example, is cited but details are sketchy. We only get the outrage voiced by his political rivals.

The play is strongest in its depiction of the conflicts between Rustin and rival civil rights leaders. These men are clearly envious of him, jealous of his close relationship with Dr. King and his influential behind-the-scenes role as strategist.

Marshall Titus, also one of the composers, plays Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, charismatic but ruthless, who calls Rustin Dr. King's "fruitcup," a "commie faggot" who "belongs in a zoo." He even sings his disgust: "I'd cut if off before I'd touch a man like him."

A. Philip Randolph, a revered black labor leader and one of the first most visible spokesmen for African-American civil rights, is portrayed by Randolph Johnson.

Jon Pierce plays King. Orlando Thompson is Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, ever cautious, denouncing communism within the movement. The actors all have great voices and their numbers are very well executed. In "He's Too Hot," the leaders decide to alert the press and authorities to Rustin's sexuality and record.

A variety of musical styles are presented, from gospel to rhythm and blues. There's a wonderful old-time minstrel spoof number called "Yes Sir, Boss" in which Thompson is a ventriloquist's dummy on Titus's lap, then a marionette on strings.

Randolph Johnson sings the touching, heartfelt "March With Me, Brothers," a musical summons to solidarity.

It matters not that Dr. King and Adam Clayton Powell had many documented extramarital affairs. That's considered normal male behavior. Powell sings, "Every now and then ya gotta get your bacon, eggs, and cheese fried in a different pan." Rustin feels betrayed by Martin Luther King, yet he continues to advise the civil rights leader.

We tend to think of the Civil Rights Movement in epic terms with massive scenes, like the 1963 March on Washington. Yet some of the best scenes here show everyday grassroots work where the organizers might have a bigger conflict over donuts than politics or policy.

Ryan Lanning shows phenomenal range playing Walter Neagle, Rustin's life partner, as well as other white ensemble roles, ranging from a southern sheriff to F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover.

I question the artistic choice of having Lanning playing a southern housewife (in apron and Harlequin glasses) on the telephone, providing a humorous spin on the white South's reactions to various civil rights developments. Comic relief might indeed be required here, but why insert such cheap laughs and drag humor in a script presumably projecting gay pride?

Jaret Williams is the musical director and Lisa Johnson Willingham the choreographer.

The Eye of the Storm is joyfully chock full of solid music. The opening night crowd Saturday was very enthusiastic. The tightly directed work is a significant achievement, despite some shortcomings. Though the writing didn't fully touch me as much as I thought it might, it certainly makes me want to go read more about unsung hero Bayard Rustin.

Doug Deuchler, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities. He teaches film history classes at two area colleges.

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