SHOWING : August 17, 2011 - September 11, 2011
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Set in 1953 Jefferson City, MO, this new drama by Atlanta author and playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey begins when a black military officer, his wife and a Jewish Holocaust survivor spend the night in a “tourist home” together, only hours before W.E.B. Du Bois is scheduled to deliver a speech in town. Brought together by the “Green Book,” a manual informing African American tourists of safe places to dine and lodge during the tumultuous Jim Crow era, these travelers and their hosts share a dramatic exchange that transforms their lives.
“Most kids today hear about the Underground Railroad, but this other thing has gone unnoticed. It just fell on me, really, to tell the story.”
-Calvin Alexander Ramsey in his 2010 interview with Celia McGee of The New York Times.
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Monday, September 26, 2011 ||
Between 1936 and 1964, a Harlem postal employee and civic leader named Victor Green published a travel guide for African Americans called “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.” It soon became known as “The Green Book,” and it listed hotels and restaurants and service stations that were “friendly” to African Americans travelling through the Jim Crow years. It also listed private homes in which travelers could find a safe haven and perhaps a free meal.|
In Calvin Alexander Ramsey’s “The Green Book,” a play receiving its world premiere production at Theatrical Outfit, we visit such a private home, that of Dan and Barbara Davis. It’s 1953 in Missouri and W.E.B. Dubois is giving a lecture nearby. The warm and inviting home is jumping with guests. George Smith, a decorated WWII veteran and his wife are moving on to another army base. Keith Chenault, a sales rep for Dwight Green, is closing on a major deal to include a chain of previously whites-only service stations. And the Davises themselves, along with their teenage daughter Neena, are anxious to see Dr. Dubois’ lecture (though Neena can’t easily hide her schoolgirl crush on the young and obviously wealthy Chenault).
They are soon joined by a white man, Victor Lansky, who refuses to stay in any hotel that discriminates against anyone. Why he has made this choice, why he is welcomed with open arms by the Davises, and why his very presence rankles Keith Chenault become the engine that drives this gripping and always compelling play.
Coming from my white suburban background, I had never known of this historical artifact, and, especially in my naïve youth, I couldn’t imagine the need for it. After all, travel was always easy for us, given the plentiful Howard Johnsons, turnpike Rest Stops, and sleepy motels. This is my answer to those critics who say that the play overstates historical obviousness, that the tales told, the conflicts sparked, and the motivations explored have been told time and time again.
Yes, Keith Chenault may be a blatant villain, a bigot who resents a white “intrusion” into his haven, a profiteer who likes segregation because of the money it puts in his pocket. Yes, Victor Lansky is a character we’ve seen before, a Holocaust survivor whose tales of persecution and bigotry outweigh anything even the Jim Crow south can claim. But the reality of the play, of the characters, of the dialogue, shows that this superficial analysis is dead wrong.
Because, more often than is comfortable, Chenault is right. Because the institutionalization of bigotry in the South was (and is) every bit as soul-stripping as the more blatant atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s a difference of scale, not of character. And, given enough time, there’s no doubt that the worst of the Jim Crow “spirit” could very easily have engendered an American Holocaust.
And, Victor often does come across as a bit arrogant in a “my suffering is worse than yours” contest that threatens to undermine his seemingly politically-correct attitudes towards race. And, as is true of any play with a Holocaust theme, he has suffered more than is due for anyone – the atrocities he describes are both sadly familiar and deeply harrowing,
And, in the final analysis, isn’t the extent to which he and his family sacrificed too many parts of themselves in order to survive a mirror image to the exploitation Keith engages in? Don’t both of them have an unacknowledged kinship in the fact that the choices they have made for survival stripped away too many layers of who they claim to be? Aren’t both characters men who will do anything to survive?
This cast is typical of what we have come to expect at Theatrical Outfit, consummate storytellers with a flair for character and surprise. Neal A. Ghant imbues Keith with enough charm and ambition that we understand his choices even as we are appalled by them. Take note especially of the final scenes, when he comes face to face with the true cost of the deal he has made, with the true cost of the riches he is bound to earn – it is a sublime blend of guilt and pride, of an “I can’t let this hold me back” determination that doesn’t ignore the true pain it has cost.
And Barry Stewart Mann brings Victor to life in ways that transcend his “role” as the stock survivor character. Yes, his stories are crafted to show us the extremes of suffering, to give us still more Holocaust stories that try to be worse than the last ones we were told. But that suffering is clearly written on his face, and makes them seem alive, much more so than any textbook rendering of the era could make them.
In supporting roles Archie Lee Simpson, Donna Biscoe, and Veanna Black (as the Davises) and E. Roger Mitchell and Sharisa Whatley (as the Smiths) convincingly play real people caught up in this historical moment, saintly in their ambitions but down-to-earth on their moment-by-moment interactions. And Rob Cleveland makes a welcome cameo as Dwight Green, providing a little bit of historical context and exposition without seeming to intrude on the main story.
The set by R. Paul Thomason is a comfortable and clean middle class home, with a pleasant living room and kitchen (the kitchen’s seeming purpose to give teenage Neena a place to eavesdrop on the Keith/Victor conflict, disabusing her of any “hero-worship” she felt towards Keith). Director Freddie Hendricks uses the space well, and keeps the play moving and electric. All the technical elements combine well and disappear professionally behind the power of this story.
One of the production’s PR releases mentioned that there is a particular irony in producing this play at this venue, as the former Herren’s restaurant at this location was one of the first (in 1962) to voluntarily integrate, and would “no doubt have been included in the Green Book.” The only problem with that assessment is that 1962 was only two years before the Civil Rights act, only two years before the “Green Book” ceased publication. In other words, Herren’s desegregation may have been a case of “too little too late” to be a true part of the “Green Book’s” full history.
In any case, I did track down an on-line facsimile of the 1949 edition. The few listings for Atlanta include one “tourist home,” six hotels (one of which was the Butler Street YMCA), one Beauty Shop, two Barber Shops, three Service Stations, one Garage, three Restaurants (Sutton’s on Auburn Ave, Hawk’s on Auburn Ave, and Dew Drop Inn on Ashby St), and three Taverns (Yeah Man on Auburn Ave, Sportsman’s Smoke Shop on Auburn Ave, and Butler’s on Simpson Rd). Apparently, Atlanta had very few options for the African American traveler, almost none away from Auburn Ave.
Still and all, I’m very grateful for Theatrical Outfit for shining a spotlight on this forgotten artifact of Americana, and for doing it with such a well-written, well-acted production. It sometimes depresses me how much of American history I was never taught, and never bothered to learn. Let me close with two quotes from the 1949 cover:
“Carry your Green Book with you -- You may need it (75 cents)”
“’Travel is fatal to prejudice’ – Mark Twain”
And that, my friends, says it all!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
Link to “Green Book” 1949 Facsimile:
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by David Shire (music), Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics)