Organize a special event lately? Not a wedding or a charity fundraiser but a midweek, outdoor gathering of a quarter of a million people from every state of the union, all in need of food, restrooms and transportation. One more thing, starting from scratch you have just two months to pull this off.
This is what faced Bayard Rustin, a leading civil rights strategist and chief coordinator of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Never heard of Rustin? You’re not alone.
How a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was exiled from the Civil Rights Movement, by both internal and external forces, is the focus of “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington takes on the title role of Rustin, who we meet setting up the march’s central headquarters in a neglected office building in Harlem. Rustin has been given the assignment by his mentor, A. Phillip Randolph (Antonio T.J. Johnson); an African-American labor union president and socialist. As the men discuss, debate and argue strategy, Rustin’s back story is revealed: A Quaker introduced at an early age to activism, Rustin earned his stripes attempting to free the Scottsboro Boys. Rustin later joined the Communist Party, made ends meet as jazz singer, served jail time as a conscientious objector during WWII and introduced nonviolent techniques to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and leads to some overly long dialog that initially bogs down the story’s pace.
Rustin was also openly homosexual. A scene was a former white lover, Davis Platt, Jr. (Mat Hostetler), makes clear that, given the cultural climate of the times, Rustin is dynamite that could blow the movement apart.
The story’s energy and tempo pick up when Miriam Caldwell (Mandi Masden delivering a star-worthy performance) arrives for an interview for a staff position. She has left her home and 2-year-old daughter in the South in order to join the movement. She’s a quick study, not timid holding movement leaders’ feet to the fire when it comes to women’s rights, and is soon at the center of the action. As she and Rustin brainstorm march themes and logistical elements, Palmer cursive writing appears real time on an old-fashion chalk board. The mesmerizing effect is the impressive work of projection designer John Narun.
Enter Martin Luther King, Jr. (Ro Boddie) who brings into the room the palpable tension a rancorous falling out. King attempts a peace offering by returning a book written by Ghandi. That Rustin doesn’t look up, takes the volume and violently slams it to the table tells us all we need to know about the depth of this rift.
An uneasy truce is achieved and destiny fulfilled. A quick slide of wall panels and scenic designer Neil Patel has transformed the stage into the National Mall, including the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. More magic by projection designer John Narun, together with lighting (Lap Chi Chu) and sound design (Joe Huppert) bring to life the energy and spectacle of the crowd. We watch King’s triumphant moment while Rustin stands center stage, arms waving like John Philip Sousa, directing the action. It is high time Rustin steps back into the spotlight of civil rights history.
Firmly at the helm of this whip-sharp cast is Lucie Tiberghien, who directed the shearing Blood and Gifts at the Playhouse in 2012. This world premiere of “Blueprints to Freedom” is a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre.