‘In White America’ Traces The American Quest for Racial Equality

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Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre, in association with Castillo Theatre, will revive Martin Duberman’s “In White America,” one of the signature plays of the Civil Rights Era, in a Off-Broadway production October 15 to November 15, 2015 at Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street. The famed documentary play traces the American quest for racial equality from the earliest days of the republic to the Little Rock crisis of 1957, with dialogue drawn from historical letters, speeches, journals, songs and other personal accounts including recordings of former slaves. Charles Maryan directs an ensemble of seven which includes actor-turned-newscaster-turned-actor Art McFarland.

The play’s major theme is the quest for freedom and equality-a theme that is deeply integrated into the 46 year history of the New Federal Theater.

Writing the play in 1963 – the defining year of the Civil Rights Movement-Duberman used letters, speeches, journals, songs and other personal accounts to dramatize how one race lost its humanity by denying it to another. At the time, Duberman was a professor of History at Princeton, mostly teaching courses about Slavery and Anti-Slavery, and fairly new to playwriting. He had written an unproduced play on the abolitionist newspaper editor Elija Parish Lovejoy and his historical writings were earning distinction. His biography of Charles Francis Adams, published in 1960, had won the prestigious Bancroft Prize.

The concept for “In White America” sprang on Duberman in response to a request to write a play about The American Presidency. He thought, “Why write about the Presidency when we are in the midst of upheaval about race?” and declined the project, preferring to strike out on his own. At the time, his now-noted biography of James Russell Lowell was in the works, as was an important collection of essays about the abolitionists.

The script of “In White America” took shape rapidly, in seven or eight weeks, since he knew the source material very well. The play opened two months later, on October 31, produced by Judy Rutherford Marechal, at the Sheridan Square Playhouse. It won the Off Broadway Drama Desk Award and launched into stardom two of its black ensemble members, Gloria Foster and Moses Gunn. Its enthusiastic review by The New York Times’ Howard Taubman characterized it as a “flaming editorial…that will strike you with fresh impact.” Reviewing a 1972 production at Equity Library Theater, the Times’ Howard Thompson wrote, “The real wonder is that a white man, the playwright, could so unswervingly recreate from inside out the shame of a nation over the years in shading of black, white and gray.”

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Lower Row: Blair Baker, Bill Toles, playwright Martin Duberman, Ezra Barnes, Upper Row: Shane Taylor, Bill Tatum, Joanna Rhinehart, Art McFarland. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The playscript is an artful weaving of historical documents. The cast is a mix of black and white actors. There is a complete absence of melodrama. The aspirations of African Americans are revealed in such texts as correspondence with former masters, statements by Nat Turner and John Brown, and exchanges between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson are shamed for hypocrisy by their own words. Duberman’s stated objective was to combine “the evocative power of the spoken word with the confirming power of historical fact.”

The job of the actors is to embody these historical statements and make them living and real. A musician frames the various scenes with occasional folk songs and spirituals, accompanied simply on acoustic guitar. The marvel of the play is how its historical sources are blended into a playscript that is so stageworthy and powerful. Director Charles Maryan is overseeing some additions to the music from the original production, but the play’s text-a time tested classic-will be unchanged, except for the barest minimum of updates. Duberman has learned by experimentation not to mess with a play that already has an infallible resonance.

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LR: actor Art McFarland, playwright Martin Duberman, actor Joanna Rhinehart. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The New Federal Theatre’s Woodie King Jr. stresses that the play illustrates the historical background of injustices which are now getting so much attention again. He explains, “I am producing the 50th anniversary production of ‘In White America’ because it’s like watching history repeat itself.

Duberman’s research was 50 years ahead of its time. The play actually shows that American History and African American History are really one story.” He adds, “The late Gloria Foster and Moses Gunn (who starred in the original production) were great friends and supporters of New Federal Theatre.”

The actors are Blair Baker, Ezra Barnes, Art McFarland, Joanna Rhinehart, Bill Tatum, Shane Taylor and Bill Toles.

It is interesting to note that Art McFarland, who appeared for 30 years as a newscaster on WABC-TV, began as an actor and has returned to the stage since his retirement from New York’s Channel 7. Charles Maryan directed him as Jean in a Juilliard production of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” about 40 years ago. McFarland’s characters in the play will include Walter White, Jordan Anderson, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Father Divine.

Scenic design is by Chris Cumberbatch. Costume design is by Gail Cooper-Hecht. Lighting design is by Shirley Prendergast. Musical arrangements are by Bill Toles.

Martin Duberman grew up near New York City and earned a B.A. from Yale in 1952 and a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1957. He taught American history at Yale until 1962, then taught for nine years at Princeton. In 1971, he became a Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY’s Lehman College. With the rise of the gay liberation movement, he became a gay activist and incorporated queer issues into his writing. Much of his body of work deals with radical outsiders and their experiences. His other theatrical works include plays on Jack Kerouac and Emma Goldman and drama criticism for Partisan Review and others.

His over 30 books include a biography of Paul Robeson and the anthology “Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past” (1989), which won two Lambda Awards. Many of his essays and book reviews are collected in “The Uncompleted Past” (1969). In recent years, his output is undimmed. His newest books include “Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir” (2009), “A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds” (2011), “The Martin Duberman Reader” (2013) and “Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS” (2014), which won the Lambda Literary Award for the best book of the year in non-fiction. His next book, “Jews/Queers/Germans,” will be published in 2016. Duberman has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and has won an Award for Scholarly Distinction from the American Historical Association. His contributions to literature have garnered him a special award from the National Academy of Arts and Letters.

Charles Maryan’s Off-Broadway directing work includes premieres of Ira Levin’s “Cantorial” (Lamb’s Theatre, Jewish Repertory Theatre), “New York 1937” by Jose Iglesias (JRT), “Mercy Street” by Anne Sexton (American Place Theatre), “First Week in Bogota” by Robert Cessna (Playwrights Horizons), “The Last Girl Singer” by Deborah Grace Winer (Women’s Project), “The Aunts” by Gary Bonasorte (47th Street Theatre), “The World of Wallowitch” (cabaret), and “Algonquin Sampler: a Literary Revue” (Joseph Jefferson Theatre). In London, Mr. Maryan directed Murray Schisgal’s “The Typists and the Tiger” starring Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach at the Globe Theatre and Judd Silverman’s “Personal Affairs” at ETC Theatre, previously Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

He is currently in his 26th year teaching at Pace University. Recently, he has been active in the Actors Studio’s Playwright/Directors Unit and P/D Workshop and several of his projects have been featured in the Studio’s Festival of New Plays. He has been a director, associate producer and acting consultant for daytime television and Court TV. Originally from Chicago, he graduated from Dartmouth and trained in New York with Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner.

Woodie King Jr. is the Founder and Producing Director of New Federal Theatre, which has presented over 325 productions in its 46-year history. Mr. King has produced and directed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in regional theatres, and in universities across the USA. He is the original producer of the ground breaking choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which was subsequently co-produced by New Federal Theatre with Joseph Papp’s Public Theatrer. He also produced “What the Wine Sellers Buy,” “Reggae” and “The Taking of Miss Janie” (Drama Critics Circle Award). His directorial credits are extensive and include work in film as well as theater. Mr. King was recently inducted into The Theater Hall of Fame for outstanding contribution to the American Theater.

This production of “In White America” is funded in part by the Ford Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts/a State Agency; NYC Department of Cultural Affairs/New York City Council Committee James Van Bramer, Chairman; Lucille Lortel Foundation, Shubert Foundation, Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, Normandie Foundation, 42nd Street Development Corporation, InterPublic Group, Denzel & Pauletta Pearson Washington, Xerox Foundation and contributions from other corporations, foundations and individuals.

The show is presented from October 15 to November 15, 2015 by New Federal Theatre, Woodie King, Producing Director, in association with Castillo Theatre. Performances are Thur, Fri and Sat at 7:30 PM, Sat and Sun at 2:30 PM at Castillo Theater, 543 West 42nd Street. Ticket prices are $40 general admission, $30 students and seniors. Groups (10 or more) are $25. The Castillo Theatre box office is www castillo.org, phone 212-941-1234.