One of the great unsung heroes of the early days of the civil rights movement is Walter White. As an African-American who could pass for Caucasian, White was a trailblazer as a reporter, activist, investigator, consultant, and NAACP chief executive during the early-20th-century years of American apartheid. His many achievements included strengthening the NAACP nationwide, working to block a segregationist’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and leading the fight for passage of a slew of civil-rights legislative initiatives. Bravely employing his distinctive genetic makeup, White even investigated incidents of racial violence in the dangerous Jim Crow South. It is this formative segment of White’s career that Rudy Gray explores in his freely adapted play, Conversations with a Kleagle.
While White’s story does indeed provide rich source material for dramatization, 13th Street Rep’s production of said tale does not do it justice. In this rendering, John Watson (Andrew Burns), an Atlanta-born black reporter with a white complexion, plunges into rural Louisiana to investigate the activities of the local KKK. Feigning empathy with Monahan (Chris Keogh), a kleagle (recruiter) for the Klan, Watson raps at length with him about the virtues of Southern segregated life. Unbeknownst to Watson, Monahan is wise to his racial identity and aims to educate Watson firsthand on Jim Crow justice. Only the warnings of “good Negro” Tookie (Blair Hicks) to catch the next outbound train save Watson from a likely lynching. While Watson’s effective writings lead to raised awareness, investigations into racial violence, and renewed pressure on the Klan, Watson learns that Tookie paid a high price for his bravery in the form of the disappearance of his son Terrell. Against the wishes of his editor Wilmer Cossette (Jerome-Anthony Larkin), Watson returns to Louisiana to settle accounts with the Klan, now under political pressure to behave for the betterment of their community.
What kept White’s story from being fully celebrated were limitations on multiple production components. The structurally imbalanced script won a playwriting contest but is in serious need of rewrites. Laced with overwritten, repetitious, and melodramatic scene work, the text was low on drama and high on clunky and static vignettes. Direction (Cristina Alicea) failed to effectively evoke the world of the play, which included a very nondescript set design (Tom Harlan) and thinly drawn characterizations. Burns’s persistent woodenness and Keogh’s cacophonous belligerence led to flat, unpalatable exchanges that held few surprises. Moments were often stiff and fatally not savored, creating swaths of exchanges that were fundamentally stuck in neutral. Flashback scenes with Watson’s parents and dream sequences about the Klan felt contrived and generic and failed to move the story forward. On the whole the production was hard to believe and difficult to process, leaving the important story of Walter White still in need of a vital dramatization.
(Also featuring Edward C. Crawford, Matt Fraley, Pharah Jean-Philippe, Peter John Lester, Josiah Marcarelli, Bart Wooldridge, and Drew Zechman.)
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Copyright 2006 Adam Cooper