Show to bring W.E.B. Du Bois' voice back
Any actor portraying civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois has a lot of work ahead of him. From his birth in Great Barrington to his death in Ghana, Du Bois lived 95 years, and weighed in on every major social and political issue from Reconstruction in the 1860s to the modern Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Brian Richardson -- who plays Du Bois in a one-man show that will come to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Du Bois' hometown Feb. 22 -- has been playing the role for more than a decade. He said it came with a lot of research, pouring over biographies and speeches and his seminal works like "The Souls of Black Folk."
But then it comes time to hit the stage.
"I try to remember all that, and then let it go," he said. "You need to have that inside of you, but then it's time to present the man."
The performance is the first time that "W.E.B. Du Bois: A Man for All Times" will be presented in Great Barrington. Through the years the show has traveled around the world, including a long stay at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2012. It is being presented here by the W.E.B Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts, along with performances in Springfield and Amherst.
In a phone interview from Wyoming, where he is on tour with another production, Richardson said he constantly finds new ways that Du Bois' life and work are relevant to today. He said he had been particularly thinking recently about Du Bois' frequent writing about access to health care, and how that debate resounds today.
"When I first started doing it, I understood what he was talking about," he said. "But today it registers differently for me."
Alexa Kelly is the co-founder and artistic director of Pulse Ensemble Theater, based in New York, which produces the play. She wrote it about 12 years ago and described it as an effort to present both the man and his work.
"It is important to give the audience something to hold on to," she said. "It's not a lecture, it's a play. ... There's a personal track that went alongside his work. You feel he's a human being and not just a political activist."
The one-man show runs over an hour, and is told through specific moments in Du Bois' life. About half of the play comes from his writing and speeches, and the rest is dramatic monologue written by Kelly. These moments include his historic work helping to found the NAACP and launching the Niagara Movement for equal rights. But it also looks at personal scenes as well, like his time as a young student in Germany -- when Kelly said "he came to understand everything didn't have to be as it was" -- and the birth of his son.
A major part was the sheer editing of the material that was required.
"A hundred years is a lot of information to get into," she said.
Kelly said she was inspired also by a need to reintroduce Du Bois to audiences. His reputation suffered greatly during the McCarthy era, when he was targeted for his socialist sympathies. Kelly said that helped keep him out of the schoolbooks.
"That's just tragic," she said
The play has gone through a number of different variations through the years, said Kelly. It began as a longer, two-hour version, and some parts have been swapped in and out.
"It goes through transitions all the time," she said. "It's a work that's alive, and searching for a level playing ground for W.E.B. Du Bois."
The play aligns well with Pulse Ensemble Theater's guiding ethos of bringing entertaining and thought-provoking work to a variety of audiences, she said. Founded in 1989, the group's mission includes community outreach and multi-ethnic casting, for projects including their long-running summer Shakespeare program in Harlem.
The performance is free but requires getting tickets in advance. Funding for the show comes from the Cecile and Randolph Bromery Endowment for the Du Bois Center.
"This is a way to offer something to the community, and to say that there's a lot of work that we can continue," said Carol Connare, director of library development and communications at the UMass-Amherst libraries.
She said the program hopes to do more work in the Berkshires, building off some programs that have already begun, including archaeological work at the Du Bois birthplace in recent years.
"We really want to do more work out there," Connare said. "We're reaching out with this theater production, and I hope people come up to us with ideas."
Richardson also said he sees the play as a place to start.
"We want to make him human," he said. "There's entertainment value in that, but you also realize there's so much more to learn."
If you go ...
What: ‘W.E.B. Du Bois: A Man for All Times'
When: Saturday, Feb. 22
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington
Admission: Free; but tickets required, (413) 528-0100.