Two for Change

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington, produced jointly by the New Federal and Castillo Theatres, is an historical drama about two people, one African-American and the other Anglo-Saxon, seeking a way to work together to reform an unjust society. Playwright Clare Coss has imagined a Sunday morning in 1915 on which W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary White Ovington, members of the group that founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), unexpectedly cross paths — and end up crossing swords — in the suite of offices where, on weekdays, they're accustomed to less emotional exchanges with each other. The production is directed by Gabrielle L. Kurlander and designed resourcefully on an Off-Off Broadway budget by Chris Cumberbatch (sets), Ali Turns (costumes), Antoinette Tynes (lighting), and Bill Toles (sound). It's an admirable contribution to New York City’s observance of Black History Month, though the principal attraction is Kathleen Chalfant as Miss Ovington.

The NAACP has been a forceful proponent of civil rights since its inception in 1909. For almost a quarter century, from 1910 to 1934, Du Bois (1868-1963), the most prominent African-American intellectual of the day, devoted the bulk of his professional effort to that organization, serving on its board and as director of publicity and research. As editor of the NAACP journal, The Crisis, he nurtured new voices among African-American artists and intellectuals. Born in the Berkshires not long after the Civil War, Du Bois earned B.A., M.A. and Ph.D degrees at Harvard, taught at a number of distinguished universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, and wrote numerous books (his most famous being the essay collection The Souls of Black Folk in which he wrote, "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line").

Mary Ovington (1865-1951) was a Brooklyn-born Unitarian whose forebears were abolitionists. Educated at Radcliffe College, she committed herself to the cause of civil rights after hearing an address by Frederick Douglass. Like Du Bois, she was on the NAACP staff for many years, addressing discrimination in employment, education, housing, public services and voting rights. The producers’ program note describes her as “the first white woman to dedicate her life to anti-racist work in the twentieth century.” Ovington's writings include Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York and a history of the NAACP, The Walls Came Tumbling Down.

As depicted by Coss, Du Bois (played by Timothy Simonson) and Ovington display the scrupulous good manners of the Victorian era in which they grew up. Although they share a wholehearted commitment to fighting racism, their personal relationship is tense and volatile. Midway through the play, they acknowledge a mutual attraction that's physical as well as intellectual. That scene, despite some anachronism in the dialogue, is the most arresting part of the script. The characters' shared decision to sublimate a powerful urge for the sake of their common vocation is inherently poignant; Chalfant's performance enhances the moment with a complexity that's true to the text but far beyond what the dramatist has written.

Best known for multiple roles in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway and as the dying academic in Wit by Margaret Edson, Chalfant is one of the foremost actresses working on the American stage. It's hard to imagine anyone better equipped to balance the genteel veneer of Coss's Miss Ovington with the substantial passions animating this character's brain and heart.

According to the production's playbill, Simonson has returned to acting after a period in finance. A formidable presence on stage, he resembles photographs of Du Bois in early adulthood. But it's the range and emotional color that Chalfant brings to her role that audiences are likely to recall most vividly about the 90 minutes they've spent at the Castillo Theatre.

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington offers a number of engaging moments; yet it's not so much a play as a series of set pieces in which the characters spar on subjects related to bigotry, civil rights, and social change. Coss hasn't found a way to make the disparate scenes cohere or resolve themselves into a unified drama. Plays seldom spring full-grown from their authors' imaginations; they're more likely to develop in stages. With insights from the intelligent performances in the New Federal/Castillo presentation, the playwright may be ready to take the script to the next level.   

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington runs through Feb. 16 at the Castillo Theatre (543 West 42nd Street). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students) and may be purchased from www.castillo.org or 866-811-4111.

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