Voice of Good Hope

Victory Gardens Theater

By Justin Hayford

Kristine Thatcher is that rare mainstream playwright who doesn’t think her audience is stupid. Apparently believing that theatergoers want something more than big emotional displays and reassuring bourgeois homilies, she ponders the intricacies of American electoral politics. How this Chicago writer will ever find success in the theater is anyone’s guess.

Thatcher’s startling new play, Voice of Good Hope, breaks no new ground, neither defying theatrical convention nor flirting with controversy. Her straightforward, realistic scenes from the life of Barbara Jordan–the first African-American woman elected and reelected to the U.S. Congress from the Deep South–won’t raise an eyebrow in aesthetically conservative theatrical circles. What makes this play shockingly unlike most new works at respectably middlebrow venues like Victory Gardens is its near total lack of quirks, gimmicks, snappy superficiality, strained poetics, overworked melodrama, and facile conclusions.

Much ink has been spilled chronicling Jordan’s life. Several biographies have been published as well as her own 1979 memoir, Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait. Her determined rise from obscurity in Houston’s impoverished fifth ward to national renown as one of the country’s most conspicuous, respected defenders of constitutional rights seems ready-made for sentimentalization. On the other hand, Jordan’s backroom politicking wouldn’t play well in soft focus. When she was elected as the first black woman to the Texas Senate in 1965, her first order of business was to ingratiate herself with her most conservative, racially intolerant colleagues–in other words, those with the most power. As a freshman she was negotiating with none other than Dorsey Hardeman, the powerful San Angelo senator who could tank multimillion-dollar appropriations “with a head shake or a pencil stroke,” as one Texas reporter put it. After learning of Jordan’s election to the senate, Hardeman reportedly said that he “wasn’t going to let no nigger woman” tell him what to do, yet within a few months of her arrival in Austin, Jordan was in his office sipping scotch and plotting to break a rival’s filibuster. As she said in a newspaper account, “To be effective I had to get inside the Club, not just inside the chamber.”

Jordan’s life is full of such complex, colorful moments. Most playwrights would try to cram as many as possible into their two hours of stage time, letting no scene run longer than three minutes, transforming historical figures into two-dimensional emblems, turning multifaceted political dilemmas into black-and-white sound bites. But rather than ape this television-inspired format, Thatcher writes only five scenes–actually four scenes and a prologue–that for the most part complicate Jordan’s character. In fact, contrary to the feel-good hyperbole in the play’s press materials (which call the work “a reverent salute to an African-American woman who rose, against all odds, to be one of the most influential women of the 20th century”), Thatcher doesn’t give us Jordan’s life at all. Rather she offers discrete glimpses of the morally relativistic political game at which Jordan excelled.

But first Thatcher gets a bit of her own feel-good hyperbole out of the way. The play opens with Jordan center stage reciting her famous remarks in defense of the Constitution during the House Judiciary Committee’s 1974 proceedings to impeach Nixon. Behind her stand the six actors who will portray characters in Jordan’s life. After Jordan finishes her noble but out-of-context speech, each of the other actors in turn moves one set piece and then exits, proceeding with a funereal solemnity. It’s a silly, pointless bit of stage business that practically turns Jordan into a museum display: all that Cheryl Lynn Bruce, the actress portraying her, can do is stare regally into the middle distance and await a speedy blackout. But instead the stage is transformed into a hospital room where the ailing Jordan, stricken with multiple sclerosis, rejects the assistance of her young doctor and her caretaker, Nancy Earl–a vignette that establishes Jordan’s fiercely independent nature but with movie-of-the-week ham-handedness.

The first true scene takes us to Jordan’s grandfather’s junkyard, where the 12-year-old Barbara spent many an afternoon sorting scraps and learning about life from someone other than her stern Baptist-preacher father. Thatcher sets the two to dawdling, leaving her play to idle before it’s even passed the starting line. Jordan asserts and reasserts her independence; her grandfather offers understanding and wisdom. It’s a warm and inviting scene, especially as acted by Karla Beard and Kenn E. Head, but it lacks any dramatic urgency. Nothing is at stake for either character–the scene merely shows the young Jordan learning to honor her dark skin, her stentorian voice, and her natural inclination toward racial integration rather than separatism. In essence Thatcher demonstrates rather than dramatizes how Jordan’s character was formed; in a 15-minute scene, it all feels academic. And considering where the play is going, it doesn’t matter how or where Jordan acquired her values. All that matters is how she applied them.

When Thatcher finally abandons the sentimental world of grandpa’s backyard and turns Jordan loose in the world of politics, her extraordinary skill as a playwright becomes clear. The remaining scenes are as rigorous, intelligent, and downright thrilling as anything written for the Chicago stage in recent memory. In the meticulously plotted second scene, Jordan is a U.S. congresswoman receiving a visit from Democratic National Chairman Robert Strauss. He asks her to testify as a character witness for former Texas governor John Connally, accused of corruption and obstruction of justice in the wake of Watergate. Connally had led the fight against integration in Jordan’s home state, and any support for him could destroy her credibility among her liberal constituents. Yet she might gain powerful friends by standing behind his cause.

When Thatcher sets these two master schemers to work, superficially nothing happens except well-behaved conversation. But in stark contrast to the scene between Jordan and her grandfather, these characters are locked in a battle of nerves and wit where every word, gesture, and pause is a weapon. This is real playwriting, all decisions and consequences–and, thankfully, no explanatory diversions. Here is a playwright who assumes that her audience not only remembers Watergate but understands the last few decades of American politics. She doesn’t even bother to explain who Strauss is (though a page of biographies in the program informs us that, among other things, Lyndon Johnson was once president of the United States). Bruce and Daniel Mooney play the scene with great care and passion.

Thatcher pulls off a similar feat in the next scene, as an ambitious young politician, Julie Dunn, comes to Jordan late in her life asking for an endorsement. Dunn is a semicloseted separatist hoping to create a new school system for black youth, a concept hateful to Jordan. Dunn supports her plan with mountains of statistical evidence; Jordan tears it apart with fuzzy concepts like unity and equality. Yet Thatcher manages to keep the playing field level by emphasizing that Jordan sees the big picture: Thatcher understands that if this debate could be settled in 20 minutes, it wouldn’t be worth staging in the first place.

Truth rings in every moment of these powerful scenes. Although Thatcher condenses the action–which is realistic but not naturalistic–she never manipulates her characters or their predicaments. Rather she establishes in each case an unresolvable conflict and allows it to gain an ever-increasing urgency. Under Dennis Zacek’s direction, the cast (which also includes Yvonne Huff, Meg Thalken, and Kim Wade) follows rather than forces that progression–especially Bruce, who plays Jordan with such seething, understated ease that the play flows naturally from her presence.

The only thing Bruce lacks is Jordan’s booming voice. But then the accuracy of her portrayal is largely irrelevant. For in the final analysis Voice of Good Hope isn’t about Jordan–it’s about a handful of politicians trying to find a moral center in a world of compromise. And it’s a rare accomplishment indeed for a playwright to take a historical figure as towering as Barbara Jordan and create around her a play of even broader scope.

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