Black Star Line

Goodman Theatre

By Adam Langer

Black messiah. Snake oil salesman. Pan-Africanist. Statesman. Soapbox orator. Wife beater. Egomaniac. Visionary. Paranoiac. These are all descriptions of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, an immensely complex man who came from Jamaica to New York in the early 20th century, founded an enormous separatist movement among African-Americans, and wound up stranded in oblivion. This was a man lauded by thousands for his plans to “uplift the race” and establish a new homeland for American blacks in Africa and at the same time skewered by African-American writers as a “black imperial wizard,” a man who was embroiled in a conspiracy to “destroy the Negro Race.” W.E.B. DuBois described him as “a little, fat, black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head,” and one African-American paper called him “a race baiter and a race traitor.”

The trouble with Charles Smith’s stunningly ambitious but somewhat too scholarly biography and Tazewell Thompson’s exceedingly well acted Goodman Theatre staging is that Garvey emerges not as rich and complex but as contradictory: it’s impossible to get a handle on him. Smith writes in his program notes, “The more research I did, the more I began to understand that there was no absolute truth to which I could adhere….So I did the only thing I could do, and that was research the commonly and not so commonly held perceptions regarding Garvey. The result, Black Star Line, is my only perception.” Smith is perhaps to be commended for his candor, but the implication is that he hasn’t completely made up his mind about Garvey, who he was and why he was that way. Garvey is referred to in the press materials as a character of Shakespearean proportions. But, to borrow from Laurence Olivier, Shakespeare may have written the tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind; he wasn’t a playwright who couldn’t make up his mind himself.

Biographical information about Garvey provides a wide array of explanations for his seemingly contradictory personality. Smothered by maternal affection, he was also bitterly abused by a cruel and exacting father, who once left him alone in a coffin vault to teach him a lesson. Garvey’s youthful love letters contain evidence of the megalomaniac he would become: he referred to himself as Napoleon. But Smith avoids explanation or clarification, simply presenting Garvey in a number of historical situations and allowing us to draw our own conclusions. We don’t get a play about just one Garvey; we get a play about many. Despite Todd Anthony-Jackson’s fluid, swaggering, wonderfully quirky performance as Garvey–he slithers about the stage in a rumpled light gray suit–we often seem to be watching different characters in different scenes, not different facets of the same character.

In one scene Garvey is an overconfident greenhorn, muscling his way into the offices of the N.A.A.C.P. In another he’s an oratorical virtuoso, the consummate firebrand. He’s the bigot who bursts forth with anti-Semitic rhetoric, and he’s the misogynistic control freak who smacks his wife. Toward the end he’s the desperate political opportunist who forges an alliance with the Ku Klux Klan (who at the time were in need of good PR) to win support for his plan to relocate American blacks to Africa. And finally he’s the defeated lion, jailed for mail fraud and eventually deported as an undesirable alien.

In interviews Smith has referred to Garvey as a predecessor of Louis Farrakhan, which is probably why he includes a gratuitous Jew-baiting remark and a veiled reference to the Million Man March. And there are parallels to be drawn between Garvey’s endorsement of separatism and Farrakhan’s denunciation of black assimilation–which is all the more noteworthy with recent headlines trumpeting a plan by Mu’ammar Gadhafi to fund Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and set up a black state in America. But saying, as Smith did in an interview with Stagebill’s Clifford Terry, that the two men are essentially “carbon copies” is at best an oversimplification. It also does a disservice to Garvey the character, again making him a contradictory symbol instead of a full-blown person. Garvey may indeed have been a strident, bilious, bigoted person, but he certainly never embodied the vicious hatred that Farrakhan does, no matter how prettily the latter can play a Mendelssohn violin concerto.

Smith’s play takes its title from the line of steamships Garvey founded, a shipping business project that also provided trips to the African homeland. Black Star Line follows Garvey from his rise to prominence in America as a leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association through the turmoil and accusations of corruption that dogged him to his fall from power, precipitated by political rivalries, FBI thuggishness, and business failures. The title–suggesting at once dreams and failure–echoes Garvey’s duality.

Certainly this is a far more solid, accomplished piece of work than Freefall, Smith’s seemingly made-for-TV drama about brothers at odds that played at Victory Gardens a few seasons back. Even so, the structure of Black Star Line feels forced at times, and many scenes have the simplistic lecturing tone of a Black History Month pageant. Though Smith provides copious amounts of information and historical insight, he doesn’t always pull it off gracefully. Garvey’s meeting with DuBois, for example, doesn’t feel like a scene between two characters but like published speeches and assorted homilies cobbled together. “What you want to do is reinvent the wheel,” DuBois tells him at one point. The scenes in which Garvey is quizzed by G-men and a political opponent are often predictable pastiches of B-movie dialogue (“Goddamn it, Harris. Put a sock in it!”). And even though it’s historically accurate that Garvey met with the head of the KKK, it seems too cartoonish and implausible for the two to cackle together, agree that “we have far more in common than we have at odds,” and light up cigars.

Further gumming up the works is the fact that, though Black Star Line portrays incidents of immense historical significance, there is precious little drama in it: far too much of the play is taken up by speechifying and rattled-off facts. The exceptions are the scenes involving the two women in Garvey’s life, Amy Ashwood and Amy Jacques (beautifully and subtly played by Ora Jones and Shanesia Davis). An office romance between Ashwood and Garvey’s right-hand man Emmett Scott (another excellent performance, from Allan Louis) is sweetly written and engaging but seems largely beside the point. And Smith’s earnest ray of hope for racial harmony at the play’s conclusion, involving a chance meeting between an outcast African-American and an outcast Jew, may be morally commendable, but it’s too easy and trite.

The stellar Goodman ensemble, many of whom play multiple roles convincingly, make up for a great deal of the flaws in the script. But aside from the acting the production values are almost shoddy, especially for a Goodman play. One large, exquisitely designed ballroom serves as a variety of diverse locations, from KKK headquarters to UNIA offices to a hotel room. This may be intended to suggest some kind of universality, but it also makes scene transitions confusing, as one is forced to scramble through the program to figure out the time and place. Perhaps the Goodman was as uncertain about this play as the playwright was of his subject.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Liz Lauren.