Performing Arts

Civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin is the focus of new drama

Writing “Blueprints to Freedom” has been “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done,” Michael Benjamin Washington says.
Writing “Blueprints to Freedom” has been “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done,” Michael Benjamin Washington says. along@kcstar.com

Michael Benjamin Washington doesn’t believe in coincidences.

Everything has a purpose. Things happen for a reason. This came out one morning by way of explaining how he wound up writing a play about Bayard Rustin, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement.

A strategist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders, Rustin was responsible for organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And he’s the subject of Washington’s “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” a world premiere co-production from Kansas City Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse in California.

The play had its origins a few years ago in a staged reading of another play, “Choir Boy” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Washington played a 16-year-old gay kid in an all-black prep school.

“At the end the director told me, ‘You’re a little old to be playing 16, but thank you for helping me sell the play to the theater,’” Washington recalled. “Then he said, ‘You should investigate Bayard Rustin.’ And I had no idea who that was.”

So Washington ordered “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” a PBS documentary. But he didn’t watch it immediately.

“I’d moved to Los Angeles to do a series, and when it was canceled, I asked a simple prayer: What do I do next?” he said. “I stopped believing in coincidences years ago, and the DVD fell off my shelf, still in the cellophane, right at my feet, and I popped it in and watched it. And thus began what became a three-year journey with the Bayard Rustin story.”

Washington wrote a 30-page treatment and took it to Gabe Greene, director of new play development at La Jolla. They discussed it and decided that the March on Washington would be the window through which audiences would enter the play. The result was a reading on Aug. 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the march.

“When I say every spirit and ghost was in that room, that was probably the most supernatural experience of my life,” he said.

La Jolla presented it in a workshop production and then scheduled it as a world premiere. KC Rep joined as co-producer shortly after. The show ran Sept. 8-Oct. 4 in La Jolla. It began previews Friday and officially opens this Friday at Copaken Stage, the Rep’s downtown venue.

Washington said from the beginning he pictured himself playing Rustin.

“I figured that as an artist I needed to be creating, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t falling into the trap of waiting for someone else to write a miracle for me,” he said. “So I wrote his story. And it’s been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.”

The play is set in the summer of 1963 as Rustin is planning the march. Other characters include Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, Davis Platt (Rustin’s ex-lover) and Miriam Caldwell, a fictional secretary.

Rustin was perceived within the movement as a public-relations problem because he was gay. But King and others relied on him as a strategist and adviser.

“I think people found places for him to function, but they happened to be in the shadows most of the time,” Washington said. “But one of the great things I learned about Bayard Rustin is that he knew his lane, and he knew at that time that if he wasn’t going to be the head, he wasn’t necessarily going to be the tail, but he was going to figure out a way to instruct the head from a safe distance. …

“He helped, for example, set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for Martin Luther King to speak from. And if Martin Luther King is his protege, then technically Martin is speaking Bayard’s philosophies for him. And I think that was probably the most admirable trait about him. He knew how to set up other people on platforms for the sake of the movement to move forward.”

In addition to the documentary, Washington turned to certain books while researching the play, including “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters” and John D’Emilio’s “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin.”

The letters, Washington said, were particularly illuminating because Rustin, like King and their contemporaries, spoke and wrote in “a very heightened, proper, elegant kind of language that my generation just doesn’t connect to. They were biblical scholars. They were Shakespearean. The use of semi-colons everywhere. I was like, ‘Oh wow, let’s go back and figure out some grammar from the eighth grade again.’ 

Even more important, Washington said, were the nonviolence civil-disobedience workshops he took from the Rev. James Lawson in Compton, Calif. Lawson, now in his 80s, was a key figure in the civil rights movement. Washington went to the workshops for three years and found Lawson to be a great resource who could answer questions about which books embellished the truth and which failed to tell the whole story.

“He was probably the greatest resource for me,” he said.

Washington was born and raised in the Dallas area and graduated from high school in suburban Plano. In high school, he competed in statewide forensics tournaments. At NYU he majored in theater with a minor in journalism. He maintains a bi-coastal lifestyle, gravitating between New York and Los Angeles. He’s working on several plays, including one about playwright Lorraine Hansberry (“Raisin in the Sun”).

What’s next after the Kansas City run? Washington doesn’t know yet. But as he said, he doesn’t believe in coincidences.

“I’m open to all opportunities the universe would send my way,” he said.

Robert Trussell: 816-234-4765, @roberttrussell

Onstage

“Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” runs through Nov. 15 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.

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