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Of Equal Measure
By Melinda Schupmann
It's nearly impossible to watch Tanya Barfield's insightful look at Woodrow Wilson's administration at the time of World War I without making connections to George W. Bush's current administration--including his right-hand advisors--and the ill-achieved boggle we find ourselves in today. Certainly Bush is no equal to Wilson educationally or intellectually, but the rapidly escalating issues--immigration, a floundering economy, and world-wide unrest--make the two men brothers in world affairs.
Barfield focuses on the issues of 'colored people' as she introduces us to Jade Kingston (Michole Briana White), a young black woman who has achieved a job in Wilson's (Lawrence Pressman) White House. Rising from cleaning toilets to this secretarial job has imbued her with the belief that all who struggle have the ability to improve their lot in life. She reveres Wilson for his high-minded claims of equality and programs targeting child labor laws. As she becomes more aware of the inner workings of the presidency, however, she is conflicted by what she learns about 'Negro' equality. This is the core of the unfolding story, and it is beautifully achieved by both Barfield and director Leigh Silverman.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Kingston's first uneasy encounters begin with her boss, Edward Christianson (Michael T. Weiss), who attaches her job security to sexual favors she might do for him. Repellent and small-minded, he also offers to get her weak-willed brother, Eugene(Christopher O'neal Warren), a job: first as an artist, then promoting him as a spy in the black communities who are rioting against the practices of lynching and segregation.
In Barfield's version of the events of the time period, Wilson is an idealist who wants the world to look upon him as a good and principled man, but his private actions are not as high-minded as they appear on the surface, particularly in relation to black integration. In two instances, a sinister torturer, Mr. Plank (a scary T. Ryder Smith), attacks both Wilson's chief of staff, Joseph Tumulty (JD Cullum), for being Catholic and traitorous and eventually Kingston for leaking secrets to David Leonard (Joseph C. Phillips), a black newspaperman. In Silverman's hands, they become the most gripping scenes in the play.
The cast is uniformly splendid, and the direction taut and briskly achieved. White delivers a bravura performance, and Warren, Cullum, and Pressman are outstanding as the male protagonists. Kathryn Bostic's original music makes the actions more dramatic and provides tension, particularly during scene changes, enhanced by Adam Phalen's sound design.
Equally important is the lighting design by Lap Chi Chu. As scenes end, characters are isolated in spotlights, allowing the obligatory furniture moving to take place. It also freezes a moment in time.. In both bright and subdued light, the mood is enhanced greatly by his choices. In various moments during the production, Jason H. Thompson adds projected images from Wilson's term, spotlighting the war that Wilson was so eager to ignore but easily persuaded to declare. Other images of unrest, including D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation's showing clips of black insurrection, help make a case for Wilson's views of the changing landscape of America in the early 1900's.
As the story concludes, Barfield has left the audience with much to think about. How factual are the accounts of events in the Wilson White House? Certainly his systematic segregation and then firing of black workers in favor of white was an egregious misdeed that inflamed the black community and set race relations back for many years. It is certainly fictional, but it engenders righteous anger in the audience and provides a blueprint of activities that seem to be carried on and on, even today. As we look ahead to a White House that may be occupied by its first African-American, how will the campaign look as it heats up? How much will we learn historically about the Bush administration's treatment of prisoners of war and how many deserving candidates were overlooked on the basis of differing political beliefs?
This play is compelling, and it does what dramatic theater should do--engage the audience in reflection and a desire to be more careful in who we allow to be our leaders. It should be required viewing in order to promote reasoned political discourse.
Of Equal Measure, presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 WashingtonBlvd., Culver City. tickets at CTG Audience Services at 213-628-2772, in person at the box office at the Music Center, L.A., online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or at the Kirk Douglas box office. Tues. - Sat. at 8; Sat. at 2; Sun. at 1 pm and 6:30; No perfs on Mondays. Exceptions: Curtain time on Thurs. 7/17 and 7/24 is at 8:30. $20-40. Closes July 27.
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