What better time than now, with certain wannabe presidents re-energizing racism and intolerance, to remind ourselves of the heroes, some of them unsung, who fought so hard for civil rights? One of those unsung, or for many little known, was Bayard Rustin. It was Rustin who, at the behest of civil rights icon A. Philip Randolph organized the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He did so while in the midst of great personal sacrifice and with his detractors trying to use against him – and the march – the fact that Rustin was gay and had early ties to the Communist Party. This makes for a gripping story.
Michael Benjamin Washington wrote and stars (as Rustin) in that story: La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin, directed by Lucie Tiberghien. In recounting the genesis of the 1963 march, the turbulent days leading up to it and the day itself, Washington is, one could argue, overambitious. The first half-hour of the one-act Blueprints is talky and theatrically rather static, a history class in the stage lights. But director Tiberghien, who was at the helm of the Playhouse’s stupendous Blood and Gifts a few years ago, opens up the action and adds sweep to the history, thanks in part to Neil Patel’s inspired scenic design and a supporting cast including stentorian-voiced Ro Boddie as Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. and Mandi Masden as committed march organizer Miriam Caldwell.
But Blueprints, which was developed during the Playhouse’s DNA New Work Series last year, is very much Washington’s showcase. It is clear from both the intelligence of the script and the quiet relentlessness of his performance that Rustin and his story are a part of him. Like the history of civil rights itself, Rustin often took one step forward only to suffer two steps back. But also like those in the movement, he never gave up, even when weary heart and body must have tempted him to do so. For its joyous moments as well as its sorrowful and dangerous ones, Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin should be experienced, discussed and remembered.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.