Michael Benjamin Washington in Blueprints to Freedom
Roll the credits! Bayard Rustin (1912–1987) performed on Broadway with Paul Robeson in John Henry. As a student, his rich tenor sang blues and gospel in nightclubs to make ends meet. An exceptional athlete, he would have played sports at the college level. He was a conscientious objector in World War II, because it went against his Quaker values (“War is wrong,” he wrote his draft board in 1943). As a result, he spent 26 months in federal prisons and fought to desegregate them. He was a Freedom Rider in 1947, long before there was such a thing. A poet, a world-class organizer, an arts collector famous for finding choice pieces in trash, he was a devotee of Gandhian nonviolence. In 1948, he went to India to study satyagraha: “soul force.” When he returned, eager to protest injustices, he wrote: “We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels won’t turn.”
Rustin and his mentor, A. Philip Randolph, had a profound influence on Dr. Martin Luther King. They taught him to espouse Gandhian nonviolence and to see civil rights protests as a national movement. Randolph and Rustin were also responsible for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in 1963, which Rustin organized behind the scenes, and where over 250,000 people heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Looking back, the march was like a perfect storm. Everything came together as if rehearsed for decades. Singers shone, speakers inspired, and there were only four arrests (all white people). Soon after, JFK demanded passage of the Civil Rights Act. Michael Benjamin Washington’s Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin, goes behind the scenes to the events leading up to the march, and a crisis in Rustin’s life.
Randolph, now 75, wants the event to be his “masterpiece.” And he wants his protégé to organize it, even though Rustin is openly gay — in an era when the closet was a necessary refuge — and a former communist (for a brief spell). For these reasons, 22 months earlier, Rustin was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is also having spiritual depression. Unable to “stand in the center of exactly who the Lord made him to be,” he feels he’s lost his calling.
Benjamin’s script exudes history. Who knew that having Dr. King speak last was almost an afterthought, or that he believed the “I Have a Dream” was “too soft” for the occasion. And that the idea of including women speakers needed urging. The 100-minute, no-intermission piece moves from conflict to order, and back. A lesser script would end with marchers’ reflections gleaming in a D.C. pool. Blueprints, smartly, does not. History is always shabby. Even around its zeniths.
Blueprints is a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. It could use fine-tuning. The first third runs like a slow train: little action, much exposition (where one character says things the other already knows). Wheels begin to turn when Rustin meets with Dr. King — and they must repair broken bridges. King (solemn, excellent Ro Boddie) has yet to become the legend. Though he won’t admit it, he needs Rustin, in part, to “blueprint” his moves. And Rustin must forgive a stab in the back. The back-and-forth power tactics in this scene are electric. As is the playwright’s formal, even ornate, dialogue. Each argues with vehement eloquence.
The play jump-starts from here. And then Neil Patel’s set, as they say, takes it “to the next level.” For most of the evening, Rustin’s practically locked in a drab, brown on brown, former Sunday school hall. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting often narrows the focus to small, cameo circles dwarfed by shadows. Chu’s designs work like a leitmotif. They slowly expand, almost as if we were in Rustin’s mind as he makes an impossible task — organize history’s largest protest march in two months — become possible. At the same time they echo the Light that Rustin, Randolph, Dr. King, and others follow.
Along with a blackboard that takes notes (and what an inventive way to lay out information!), Patel’s set also traces this awakening with a stunning coup de theatre. Just when you think you’ve seen all his set can deliver — kaboom! It’s like watching a small apartment morph into a palace.
Director Lucie Tiberghien could find more ways to make the early scenes less static, as could the script. But overall she does a fine job orchestrating what turns out to be a gradual crescendo from darkness to light.
Mat Hostetler does well as Rustin’s long-time lover Davis Platt, Jr., though the conclusion of their important scene needs sharper definition. Antonio T.J. Johnson’s another argument for our bigger theaters hiring locals. He fits right in as Randolph, a powerhouse wanting one last hurrah. And Mandi Masden’s a treat as Miriam Caldwell, a volunteer who becomes an instrumental member of the team (her glee at meeting Dr. King is priceless).
Were it of lesser quality, Blueprints would qualify as a vanity piece. Michael Benjamin Washington wrote it so he could play Rustin. But it’s much more. Along with capturing the chaos of the times, Washington is brilliant in the role: flattop hair gone to seed, the frumpy, slept-in outfits, the marrow-deep doubts and unfettered honesty, all create a portrait so well-crafted that Washington disappears and Rustin walks among us, finally receiving his due.
Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin, by Michael Benjamin Washington
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien; cast: Ro Boddie, Mat Hostetler, Mandi Masden, Antonio T.J. Johnson, Michael Benjamin Washington; scenic design, Neil Patel; costumes, Beth Goldenberg; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; sound, Joe Huppert; projections, John Narun; wigs, Charles G. La Pointe
Playing through October 4; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org