Shadows of the past

W.E.B. DuBois, Prophet in Limbo

By Dan Snow and Alexa Kelly
Directed by Alexa Kelly
Heartbeat Productions and Pulse Ensemble Theatre
Metro Baptist Church
410 West 40th  St. (695-1596)
Non-union production (closes Mar. 31)

Dan Snow and Alexa Kelly have brought forth W.E.B. DuBois, Prophet in Limbo, essentially a one-man play (performed mostly by Snow) based on the life of a man whose ferociously rigorous intellect functioned at a time when many white Americans considered blacks to be only slightly more intelligent than a chimpanzee. The production was notable chiefly for the outstandingly fine performance of Snow in the title role.

Following a relatively bigotry-free childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, DuBois attended Fisk University in Tennessee, where racism assaulted him for the first time. Thenceforth, his mission in life became one of achieving equality for black Americans. He never did, of course. But he accomplished a great deal nonetheless: he co-founded the NAACP. Later he served as editor of its influential magazine, Crisis. Snow and Kelly's script is a conventional, mainly chronological account in which DuBois, addressing the audience, relates the relevant facts of his life. There is a distinctly pedagogical tone to the writing: "In 1910, I resigned my position at Atlanta"; "In 1896, I received my Ph.D. from Harvard," and so on. True, certain scenes from DuBois's life were re-enacted by Snow; he convincingly portrayed, among others, DuBois's mother, grandmother, and especially his daughter. But the re-enactments did not dispel the notion that the play is more a lecture than a full-bodied theatrical entity. The inclusion of a slide show re-enforced this feeling.

Speaking of full-bodied, Snow's acting was that and much more. Under Kelly's excellent direction, he supplied a fiery dignity that the real DuBois would have appreciated, and he physically resembled DuBois as well. During the course of his performance, he was often forced to use his handkerchief to wipe perspiration from his brow. Whether planned or not, this act gave his characterization a subtle sense of desperation that was oddly poignant and wholly appropriate. He was most amusing - and the script is at its sharpest - in the depiction of DuBois's conflict with Booker T. Washington, who emphasized the importance of vocational training for blacks, a view sarcastically dismissed by DuBois as an "Uncle Tom philosophy."

Brian Richardson appeared briefly and effectively as Marcus Garvey, though he didn't really look like him. In the play, DuBois calls Garvey "a buffoon." Waving a sword and donning a military uniform that Admiral Nelson might well have worn at Trafalgar, Garvey did indeed come off as rather silly; Dubois's clothes, by contrast, were tastefully elegant in an early-20th-century sort of way.

The sound effects, devised by Kelly, were adequate for the job, as was the lighting. The appropriately moody set included a series of flats arranged in a semicircle. The central flat had painted on it an American flag with several of its stars cleverly replaced by crucifixes and KKK hoods. The other flats were covered with a mosaic of words and events relating to DuBois's life.

Despite the aforementioned reservations, the authors are to be commended for giving us a play of ideas - a species of theater that's apparently headed for the same fate as the mastodon.

Note: Lighting uncredited; costume designer Terry Leong and set decorator Ruben Arana-Downs.

Box Score:

Writing: 1

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Set: 1

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 Adam Cooper