Mutiyat Ade-Salu & Sidney Edwards in Miss Ida B. Wells. Photo by Tom Fougerousse for the University of Louisville.
Miss Ida B. Wells
By Endesha Ida Mae Holland
Directed by Nefertiti Burton
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner – just to name of few from recent, ongoing history. In the social discourse and overt protest surrounding the growing list of Black lives lost to police violence, the connection between these events and the epidemic of public lynching in the Jim Crow south is often cited and just as often derided.
It seems unlikely that Endesha Ida Mae Holland intended any such relationship when she wrote her play so many years ago, but in Nefertiti Burton’s new production at the University of Louisville’s Thrust Theatre, that connection is forcefully made.
According to Wikipedia, “Ida B. Wells (1862 -1931) was an African-American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.” Certainly, this is a life worthy of commemoration and dramatization, but the key element missing from this description is her campaign against lynching. It dominates Holland’s text and provides Burton the opportunity to deliver on the audience’s expectations with a powerful new climax to the play.
To detail that climax here would constitute an unforgivable spoiler, but suffice it to say that only the most obtuse audience member could watch Miss Ida B. Wells without beginning to make the connection for themselves, and Ms. Burton simply capitalizes on that inevitability.
The staging is spare but augmented by a striking use of projections on a large screen that eschews a square or rectangular format in favor of a large shape drawn from perhaps the most famous image of Wells. Only two actors play the tightly written one-act structure: Sidney Edwards (in her thesis role as a student at U of L) and Mutiyat Ade-Salu. Both portray Wells, as well as several other characters. Ms. Edwards essays Wells as a younger woman, and Ms. Ade-Salu handles the more mature character, and the energy and interaction between the two is fairly seamless. The pace is sure and the focus is handed back and forth with admirable technical skill, but the discipline never diminishes the passion of the performances.
I suppose that there is some degree of didacticism in the writing, but the lesson is important enough and rendered with a measure of talent and creativity more than sufficient to the task. Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist before the position was common, and famously won an unprecedented court judgment against the Memphis and Charleston Railroad for segregation in their setting (the decision was overturned on appeal), so she stands as both a feminist and civil rights icon: as tough as it was to accomplish such things as a woman at the turn of the 20th century, it must have been doubly tough to accomplish as a Black woman.
Zhanna Goldentul’s costumes are near-to-perfect, and Kevin D. Gawley, who also managed scenic and lighting design, accomplishes the crucial projection work.
Miss Ida B. Wells
September 22 @ 8:00pm
September 23 @ 8:00pm
September 24 @ 3:00pm
September 28 @ 8:00pm
September 29 @ 8:00pm
September 30 @ 8:00pm
October 1 @ 8:00pm
Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors, faculty, and non-UofL students. Tickets available online at http://louisville.edu/theatrearts/productions or at the Box Office, open Monday-Friday 10am-4pm, 2314 S Floyd St
University of Louisville Dept of Theater Arts
2314 South Floyd Street
Louisville, KY 40292
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.