Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington
Reviewed by Martin Hernandez
The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center
Through May 21
Author of such seminal works as The Souls of Black Folks and Black Reconstruction in America, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois opined that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” That it still exists in the 21st century would probably be of no surprise to Du Bois, who for decades battled racism in America on every level: from its white denizens, represented by the Ku Klux Klan, to its government, under President Woodrow Wilson. In playwright Clare Cross’s one-act two-hander, Du Bois (director Ben Guillory) reaches a pivotal crossroads as he and Mary White Ovington (Melanie Cruz), a sympathetic white suffragette and fellow NAACP co-founder, debate his future with the fledgling civil rights organization.
It’s June 1915, and after five years as policy and research director, Du Bois arrives at the group’s New York office one Sunday to prepare his fourth resignation letter. He’s battling not only the lynching of blacks and their purging by Wilson from federal agencies, but the racism of some of the NAACP’s white board directors who, he angrily laments, “refuse to share power with a Negro.” He unexpectedly finds Miss Ovington in the office, catching up on volunteer duties. They engage in a lively debate, which ranges from the friendly to the contentious to the almost seductive, with Ovington urgently trying to convince Du Bois to stay despite the affronts he faces from liberal whites trying to clip his wings — and his tongue — to avoid offending patronizing white donors.
Guillory would have towered over the diminutive Du Bois, but he’s resplendent in a seersucker suit, and exudes the dapper manner as well as the rugged dignity of a man who refused to bow down to oppression. At times Guillory struggled with his lines, but redeemed himself in moments depicting Du Bois’ rage and reflection. As Ovington, the soft-spoken but vibrant supporter of black rights who lived among the masses she fought hard to defend well into her eighties, Cruz exudes a quiet – sometimes too quiet – grace.
Guillory’s staging and Thomas Meleck’s impeccable set evoke an authentic feel of the times, while Carr’s heartfelt but at times expository script gives us a rare glimpse of two people who, despite their differences in race and gender, embraced a struggle that still cries out for unity.
The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown L.A.; Thurs.– Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through May 21. (866) 811-411 or www.thelatc.org. Running Time: 100 minutes.