Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Superb visual imagery and precise direction are the strengths of Tazewell Thompson, the Playhouse’s new artistic director. And these talents are once more on display in Thompson’s current production, “Constant Star.” But one wonders about the wisdom of multi-tasking. In this case Thompson is writer-director--but clearly at his best as director.
In “Constant Star,” Thompson has taken on a 19th century black civil rights leader, one Ida B. Wells. With his cast of five women—Janeece Aisha Freeman, Gail Grate, Tracey Conyer Lee, Laiona Michelle, and Gayle Turner—he depicts the Wells’ story in song and speech.
The potential for a powerful, emotionally-wrenching tale is certainly here, but never achieved. Wells, born a slave, grew into a towering figure who made her mark on the century. She was, in turn, a teacher, a journalist, a public speaker, a candidate for political office. Throughout, she remained an advocate for the rights of both women and African-Americans. She moved from Holly Springs, Mississippi, to Memphis to Chicago, to far wider arena. Along the way, she became the publisher of the “Memphis Free Speech,” and, as lecturer, made speaking tours in this country and England. Her friendships with other suffragists—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony among them—suffered when they differed on priorities. Wells insisted on giving equal importance to African-American as well as women’s rights, while the others felt that women’s rights must take precedence.
Thompson uses some 20 gospel songs, interspersed with speeches (sometimes moving, sometimes comic), to round out his play. But he never really digs into the personal development of Ida B.Wells--how and why she evolved as she did. Nor does one make an emotional connection with the character.
If one views “Constant Star” as a concert, with the underlying Wells’ theme, then one can be more charitable about the show. For starters, Thompson has assembled five first-rate performers who work flawlessly as an ensemble in movement and song. All five presumably represent Wells, with speeches and songs scattered among them. Thompson also uses his design team with striking results. The black-and-white costumes of Merrily Murray-Walsh are gorgeous, as is her one red ball gown, Robert Wierzel’s lighting designs heighten the dramatic effect, and Donald Eastman’s intimate, confined sets create the effect of a 19th century daguerreotype.
All told, Thompson has created an effective and striking concert piece, but certainly not a play.
-- Irene Backalenick
July 13, 2006