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Busy five times over

Tazewell Thompson's play 'Constant Star' has people knocking on his door for more scripts, but can the successful director find the time?

November 09, 2004|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

If life could imitate art, time-starved Tazewell Thompson would multiply himself by five -- just as he did with Ida B. Wells, the civil rights firebrand who is the subject of his play, "Constant Star."

In his new calling as a playwright, the affable, 50-year-old New Yorker has a proliferation of commissions to fulfill, thanks to the success of "Constant Star." But he hasn't yet curtailed the well-established, full-time career directing plays and operas that he has pursued for about 25 years.

"It's just a massive pileup," Thompson says, sitting in the foyer of the Laguna Playhouse's rehearsal hall, shortly before going inside to direct Idas one through five. The actresses team up as the main character and sometimes speak as other people, including Wells' doomed parents, FBI agents who arrest her for her views and historical figures including Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington.

The show interweaves traditional black spirituals with dialogue, including harrowing descriptions of the lynchings and other outrages that galvanized Wells, a newspaper publisher and NAACP co-founder, to a life of protest. It humorously depicts the flinty, unyielding agitator as an impossible egotist, but also dramatizes her heroism as she fought for racial equality from the 1880s until her death in 1931. The West Coast premiere at Laguna is the play's 11th staging since 1999, with Thompson directing each one.

He decided to write parts for five Ida B. Wellses because he didn't want the role to become a star turn that would shift the focus from the character, whose place in the history of African American struggle he believes has been unjustly obscure. Also, the director in him knew that five women on stage would bolster the songs' a cappella harmonies and allow for striking visuals through the players' interactions and movements. Besides, Thompson says with a laugh, Wells never could have brooked sharing the spotlight with anyone but herself.

He first encountered her in the early 1990s when he was channel surfing and stumbled upon the PBS documentary "Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice." It didn't drive him immediately to his pencil and pad -- Thompson is happy being computer-free -- but Wells lodged in his mind.

In 1997, he was working at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., one of his regular gigs as a freelance director (other associations have been with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; Syracuse Stage in upstate New York, where he was artistic director for three seasons; and New York City Opera). PlayMakers' producing director, Milly S. Barranger, told him she'd always admired the speeches he writes to orient the cast and crew on the opening day of rehearsals. She had some grant money for a commission, and would he like to write a play?

Thompson thinks that Wells' story stayed with him because it struck him as both important and little known. He subsequently discovered that this 4-foot-10-inch battler had a passion for Shakespeare that matched his own (He got his title from "Julius Caesar": "I am as constant as the northern star") and would allow him to flavor the part with both the elevated cadences of a Bard lover, and the tart, down-home folksiness and verbal gamesmanship of her rural Mississippi upbringing.

He also saw in Wells manifestations of some women who were important in his life: the struggles of his mother, who never got over the Bronx apartment fire that spared Thompson when he was 4, but claimed his younger brother; the strength of the grandmother, actress Florine Thompson, who largely raised him and helped cultivate his love of books and theater; and the steely nuns in whose charge he lived for several years when he was schooled in a convent.

His playwriting debut with "Constant Star" led quickly to commissions from Arena Stage, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, New York's Lincoln Center Theater and People's Light & Theatre Company near Philadelphia. Among the stories he aims to tell are an account of the thorny friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her black dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, and a musical play, again using spirituals, about the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who toured internationally after the Civil War to save their all-black college in Nashville from going broke.

There's also the one he thought he'd never tell: the story of his parents' troubled marriage, his brother's death and how it all affected him.

Part of becoming a playwright, Thompson says, is learning to reveal more of himself. "It's hard, very disturbing and very deep for me, but at the same time I found that something I've kept to myself for such a long time is now able to release itself. I'm finding a whole other dimension in myself."

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