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After a performance of his Personal History wrapped up Saturday night, playwright Dominic Taylor hung around to talk to the audience for a few minutes. He arranged his thin frame on the front of the stage at the Kennedy Center’s AFI Theater, where the African Continuum Theatre Company is producing the play, while people asked in quiet voices about the development of various characters, about how long it had taken him to write the script, about what had inspired him to begin it—the usual questions. Taylor listened to all of them with a couple of fingers touched to his lips, then answered in a way that was as smart as it was unfocused: In every 150-word answer was hidden a gemlike 35-word response.
It’s a little unfair, I know, to make any critical judgments at all about Taylor’s comments in what was a generous, and apparently last-minute, addition to Saturday night’s program. Mostly those of us who stayed were grateful to hear him talk about the evolution of this unusual and difficult script—the work’s own personal history. But the comparison is telling nonetheless: It was striking how much the rambling language of Taylor’s post-show chat resembled that of the play, even though he’s revised it, by his own estimate, more than 30 times since he began working on it six years ago. As if it were a piece of software, Taylor explained, the most recent revision of the script is numbered Version 7.7. Big rewrites merit a whole-number jump; smaller ones are marked by tenths of a point.
Although it’s worth seeing—its sometimes subtle, sometimes very bold use of racially charged symbols is alone enough to recommend it—Personal History is very much the work of a relatively young playwright who is still feeling his way toward a bright literary future. Its liabilities (frequent stretches of overwriting and a too-ambitious structure, to name two) will probably still be around even if the script reaches Version 17.0. Some elements of a play simply can’t, or shouldn’t be, revised away: They’re embedded in the script’s DNA.
A sort of triptych of African-American life set in Chicago, Personal History features the same half-dozen characters let loose in three very different historical settings: 1903, 1953, and 1996. In each section, a young African-American pharmacist named Eugene Balswede (KenYatta Rogers) finds himself struggling to make sense of his consuming ambition, his new surroundings, and his relationship with a black woman named Bethany Weeks (Deidra LaWan Starnes). In the first scene, Eugene has just arrived in town to find that his Harvard education seems to qualify him only for work as a porter; at a party hosted by a mutual acquaintance, he meets Bethany, who establishes herself as his intellectual equal—and intellectual rival, of sorts—before the second round of drinks.
Flash forward 50 years, though the characters are still the same age: This time it’s 1953, Brown vs. Board of Education is right around the corner, Eugene is newly married to Bethany, and the two of them are signing the papers for their new house, the biggest piece of property in an otherwise all-white Chicago neighborhood. (The couple figures—disastrously—that buying the nicest house on the block, as opposed to slipping in at the bottom of the economic range, might help protect what they call the area’s “equilibrium.”) Finally, in the 1996 scene, Eugene and Bethany, divorced and each involved in an uneasy interracial relationship, find themselves dining at nearby tables in the same trendy restaurant. Throughout the play, Taylor mixes naturalism with some brief patches of reverie: Eugene, especially, is given to dream sequences in which he slips out of the narrative for a few moments.
There are some smart touches in Jennifer L. Nelson’s staging of the play. Though I think it’s better if I don’t identify it exactly, the racial incident that drives the 1953 section—and around which the whole play revolves, really—is delivered with startling efficiency. The use of Confederate flags, which get larger as the play goes on, is also visually and dramatically deft, and gains some additional power from the fact that just outside the AFI Theater is the Kennedy Center’s Hall of States, whose parade of hanging flags includes Mississippi’s, with its huge Confederate cross. Greg Mitchell’s set is designed so that layers can be removed from it from scene to scene, with the walls getting sparer as the play moves forward in time. The lighting, by Dan Covey, helps clarify those moments when the play shifts into its anti-realism mode.
The performances are more of a mixed bag. Though the script makes Eugene out to be insufferably superior at times, the play simply won’t work if he’s not sympathetic more often than he’s annoying, and Rogers hasn’t yet figured out how to make the character complex and likable at the same time. Then, too, there’s the fact that in the early moments he seems both militant and weirdly naive about racism, although this is as much a problem with the script as the performance. Starnes, as Bethany, is the best thing about this production. She’s so charismatic and tough early on that when the script finally forces her into some vulnerability, the shift is all the more dramatic. David Lamont Wilson, as the foil Cosgreve, has the toughest acting job of all: While the characters of Eugene and Bethany stay pretty much the same from scene to scene, he goes from butler to restaurateur and then, for good measure, is asked to deliver the play’s passionate final speech. Wilson is too often unsteady to hammer home his role as the play’s conscience with any real force.
Taylor began writing Personal History in 1996—in the wake, he says, of the O.J. Simpson verdict. But the real heart of the play’s argument is W.E.B. Dubois’ 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” which argues that the “Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.” With all their striving and ambition, both Bethany and Eugene are undoubtedly meant to symbolize that tenth—and the pride, burdens, and anxieties that go along with it. But in the end the play, like the famous essay itself, is primarily concerned with the African-American man—for all of Bethany’s vitality, its heart lies with Eugene, and the decisions he makes, hesitates about, and regrets.
Early in “The Talented Tenth,” DuBois defines manhood as a combination of “intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it.” This is precisely the kind of manhood that Eugene wants to achieve—desperately. And though Personal History is an imperfect document of his struggle to get there, Taylor keeps us aware throughout of the nobility as well as the price of the effort. CP