Lisa Clark (front, center) is one of five actors who play Ida B. Wells and other characters in Actors Guild of Lexington's production of Constant Star. Behind her are (L-R) Sylvia Howard, Mia Harris, Cathy Rawlings and LaNora Faye Long. Photo by Rich Copley | LexGo.
She stands in the middle of the stage, with four interrogators around her. The accusations fly:
Getting married was a distraction.
Having children showed a lack of commitment to the cause.
How can she be a wife and mother and still be a powerful agent of change?
A mother belongs at home.
No, those are not scenes from the first play about Sarah Palin play to hit the stage.
This scene actually takes place about 1900 in Constant Star, Tazewell Thompson’s spiritual musical about journalist and activist Ida B. Wells that opened last weekend at Actors Guild of Lexington. It draws more than a few knowing laughs and deep breaths as we contemplate how things have and have not changed.
On the change side, Constant Star reminds us that less than a century ago, black people were routinely murdered in community spectacles. Now, we could be on the verge of electing a black man as president of the United States or a wife and mother of five as vice president.
On the other hand, the show reminds us that many of the issues faced by women and African-Americans are still alive and well in the 21st century.
Wells is a figure who does not loom large in most history classes. Asked about this at a pre-show talk on Sept. 13, Thompson, the playwright, said part of the reason her role as an anti-lynching crusader is not more prominent is that “history books were written by white men.”
Those men tended to favor the actions of peaceful, polite civil rights activists such as Booker T. Washington or Rosa Parks, the New York-based writer said.
Wells was far from polite, writing fiery editorials in her newspaper, The Memphis Free Speech, and making proclamations such as every black person should own a gun for protection.
Wells moved from Memphis to New York to Chicago, helping to form organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Wells is known primarily as an anti-lynching crusader and a suffragette, though Thompson’s play gives us a broader view of her, also a child devoted to her father, a wife who falls madly in love with her eventual husband, Chicago lawyer Ferdinand Barnett, and a shopaholic.
But the resonant theme is a passionate fight against injustice by exercising the right to free speech.
That brings us back to one of Wells’ fundamental occupations: journalist.
First through newspapers and then other forms of media, Wells documented the heinous practice of lynching, including the burning and shooting of a woman who was eight months pregnant because she protested the lynching of her husband. The fetus was killed, too.
Wells’ venue was the alternative press of the day, but eventually it made it to the mainstream and across the ocean. The British were appalled to find lynching was so openly practiced and often celebrated in the United States. In 1908, there were 97 lynchings recorded in this nation. The most recorded in a single year was 211, in 1884.
Wells was vigorously opposed by people who didn’t want her words to get out, but they did, and lynching subsided in the years before her death, in 1931.
Women and African-Americans also got the right to vote, the United States has diversified in myriad ways and to many, those grisly days seem like distant memories. But every once in a while, we’re served reminders that things may not have changed as much as we’d like to believe:
■ Hate crimes, such as the brutal murder of James Byrd Jr. in Texas in 1998.
■ Knee-jerk reactions to women in leadership, asking if they can have a family and a career.
■ The persistent question, “Is America ready to elect a black man as president?”
Yes, a lot of the history we read now was written by a white, male establishment.
But there is not necessarily a final draft of history, and Thompson has written a chapter of his own that makes us contemplate where we’ve been and where we are.