Syracuse Stage and SPC Present Constant Star --
The Story of Ida B. Wells

by Carlyn Ann Aquiline, City Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA

Theater and opera productions by internationally acclaimed director Tazewell Thompson have been seen all across the United States. Still, directing Constant Star is a unique experience for him, the first of its kind in his career. The reason, he wrote it, and it’s clear that the play has been authored by someone who understands the value of theatricality.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his subject was a woman who created drama wherever she went and whose life was a theatrical event in the unfolding.
Ida B. Wells was a relentless agitator who never minced words, had an uncompromising – even uncooperative – spirit, which gained her many adversaries. On the other hand, her almost single-handed crusade against lynching was instrumental in diminishing that practice in the US, and she was an undisputed leader in the causes of civil and equal rights for African Americans and for women throughout her life-time.

Constant Star spans the length of Wells’s life, from 1862 to 1931, but it is not simply a linear and narrative biographical docu-drama that stages a list of her achievements. Rather the play reveals the many roles of Ida B. Wells-Barnett – journalist, anti-lynching crusader, civil rights pioneer, public speaker, political candidate, suffragette, daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, African American, and woman – and takes a very unconventional form, moving freely from one period of her life to another, giving an expansive view into what made the woman, without getting confined in every detail of her history.

Another unusual element is that Ida is played by five different actresses. As Thompson points out about the powerhouse Wells, “Who was going to be the one actress to play this woman?” The casting of five women emphasizes the manifold identities of Wells, which are further highlighted by the period costumes that span the five decades of Wells’ active career. Casting a five-woman ensemble also makes the storytelling more dynamic, as the actresses individually, and sometimes collectively, play Wells, and also portray all the other characters in Constant Star, both male and female, black and white, such as Wells’ parents and husband, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Susan B. Anthony, and even God himself. The form shifts freely from direct address narrating to role-playing to more conventional scene structures as the actresses step in and out of Ida and the supporting roles. One result of this unusual choice is that the ensemble assumes the function of a chorus, both in storytelling and in a musical sense. The dialogue becomes musical as they often speak as one, completing each other’s thoughts and sentences, but the music itself is integral to Constant Star, helping to comment on and forward the action.

Thompson has chosen 20 Negro spirituals, sung by the women a cappella in five-part harmony, that mirror the life, work and struggles of Ida B. Wells, since spirituals, as he points out, “are inseparable from the black community’s ongoing struggle to America’s promised land of equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These distinctive songs are used not only as transition, but as a central storytelling device which contains poetry in its language, but which owes its real power to its union with the music. As Thompson explains, drama is inherent in these songs, the “drama of a people struggling to find a voice,” and they reflect both the suffering and the hope of the human soul, making it clear why Paul Robeson called the Negro spirituals “the soul of the race made manifest.”

Constant Star presents Wells in all her complexity, including her “almost pathological inability to compromise,” which Thompson suggests may be been simultaneously her greatest strength and weakness, and may help to account for why the story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett seemed virtually to disappear from American history until recently. One can only surmise and consider it fortunate that Ida B. Wells-Barnett lived and fought and finally has been given her due. Seven decades after her death, as Tazewell Thompson observes, we read in the headlines about the contemporary lynching of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard, hate messages on the internet, racial profiling, and we hear Ida B. Wells’s clarion call to justice speak to us. Her story is a brilliant example of how one person can make a difference in the ongoing struggle against the dark forces of mankind.” A constant star, shining in the firmament for history to follow.

A Constant Star Fundraiser
SPC’s November fundraiser is in conjunction with the Syracuse Stage play Constant Star. To benefit SPC, tickets must be purchased through SPC – our tickets are for the 3pm show on Saturday, November 15.
The tickets are $28. There will be a reception following the performance. For more information, contact 446-3950 or email Carol Baum <carol@peacecouncil.net>. To reserve tickets, send checks to the SPC office.