Conversation With a Kleagle is loosely based on the life of Walter White, a black writer whose light complexion allowed him to investigate the Ku Klux Klan during the early 20th century and convey devastating inside information about its use of terrorism and lynching. The production reveals some of that potentially explosive life story, but unfortunately the script contains deep flaws, especially in the characterization. Most of the play revolves around two conversations between John Watson (the Walter White character), a black Chicago journalist who passes as white to travel in the South, and a Kleagle, or KKK recruiter, named Randall Monahan (Chris Keogh). The Kleagle, who is aware of Watson's background and thinks the black man doesn't "know his place," plans to kill him. Watson is then tipped off by a stranger, an African-American shoe shiner named Tookie, and narrowly escapes. But when he returns to Chicago, he learns that Tookie has paid for his intervention with his son's life. Watson decides he must face the Kleagle again and find out why he had the killing done.
Problems with the conception of these characters begin right away. In an expository opening monologue, the audience learns that Watson is black and that Monahan knows this. This could set up a potentially mesmerizing scene where Monahan drops threatening hints as to what he might do. Better still would be to keep the audience guessing about whether Monahan knows about Watson, based on the Kleagle's ambiguous and vaguely hostile language.
Instead, Monahan makes only a few threats. A conversation that could be about subterfuge, fear, and what isn't known turns into easy boasting. Watson cajoles Monahan into bragging about his exploits as a Klansman by agreeing with his racist views, and any potential tension is killed.
In the rare instances where Keogh is allowed to be intimidating, he is exceptional. Keogh is explosive, powerful, and threatening, someone you would not want to be at the mercy of. But he hasn't been given good enough material. Being completely evil, his character is too absolutist. There is nothing conflicted about Monahan, no questioning of who is right in his confrontation with Watson, and no indication of what the Klansman's motivations are. Instead of the nuanced evil of, say, Roy Cohn in Angels in America, we get the flatness of Darth Vader from Star Wars.
Another missed opportunity comes in the subplot involving Tookie, a modest, generous Southern black man, and, surprisingly, a stereotype. He is an endearing simpleton, a bootblack who, though ignorant, is noble in his sincerity and tragic in his sacrifice. As the friendly, helpful black man, he represents absolute good in contrast to Monahan's total evil.
The play also presents an irrelevant flashback dealing with Watson's childhood and the threat of racial violence against his family. His mother urges him to pass as white—advice, it later becomes evident, he does not follow except when he goes South. As indicated by his profession, Watson has decided to be black: he writes only for black newspapers. The flashback does little to develop his character, because the more central conflict is not over his passing as white but whether he will confront Monahan about what he has done to Tookie's son. Yet too much of the play deals with the issue of Watson's racial identity.
Furthermore, Andrew Burns plays Watson as someone who bears his torments mostly internally. He does not seem troubled; any evidence of his struggle over passing as white is not outwardly apparent in his gestures and expressions. Instead, Burns seems impatient to get to the end of each scene, and his character, though often appearing angry, never seems particularly tormented by racial injustice or by his mother's ambitions for him, as flashbacks suggest he would.
To the play's credit, there are a few memorable instances of unforgivably racist yet vividly descriptive lines that reflect hateful Southern attitudes. These lines are reserved for Keogh and his expressions of vitriol, delivered in a booming voice. And one directorial choice is creative, at least at first: the general Klansmen serve as stagehands so that during transitions where Watson is onstage they menacingly stare at him and pantomime threats. But the device becomes tedious after the second time.
In all fairness, writing socially conscious theater, for all its importance, can be uniquely difficult. The writer must walk a fine line between artist and reformer. Conversation With a Kleagle is a play rife with possibilities for great drama. It's too bad so few of them are realized here.