By calling his play A Credit to His Race, a phrase redolent with racist overtones, Steven Gold announces that race issues will be bluntly presented, and there will be no easy answers. This "social drama" was inspired by the life of Ernest Just, a real historical figure, but asks to be taken on its own merits.
Leon Jefferson (L.C. Harrell) is a zoologist who uses the study of nature as a means "to find his place in the world." That would be fine if this were a perfect world, yet Jefferson's belief is so strong that though he is aware of what he calls "popular thought" on racial matters, he insists on going north to work toward a career in research, rather than remain at Howard University to teach.
But the play is not about Jefferson's academic struggles: it concerns his personal ones. Being acknowledged but not accepted takes its toll on his marriage when his wife Helen (Debra Anne Townes), a French teacher from Howard, comes to visit. She's bitter at being condescended to, and he's angry at being asked to make a choice between his family and his work. When he tells her he's going to Italy on a fellowship, she says she may not wait for him.
The different standards in Italy in 1930 are a revelation to Jefferson. Talking to Helga (Stephanie L. Shapiro), the German woman who was sent to meet him, opens up new worlds. Helga too has come to Italy to study, because at home her work was considered improper for a woman. Their relationship thrives in this insular world -- until money problems intervene. When funds must be raised to continue their work, even the intervention of a fairy godmother, the wealthy Lady Astor (Marie Elizabeth Thomas), brings no relief. Reality will not be denied, and cannot be escaped.
A Credit to His Race is constructed episodically, and was necessarily sketchy because of the ground the author chose to cover. It ably presented the problems and pitfalls of trying to break out of a societal role, and how being a "credit to one's race" is a double-edged sword. But the play also suffered from being overly expository, only occasionally offering real character insight. One of the strongest moments was when Jefferson movingly tells the story of being thirsty in the Naples train station, and seeing only one water fountain. It is not marked "White" or "Colored," and anyone could drink from it.
Harrell was stolid as Jefferson, giving the character both his dignity and his anger. Townes had an appropriately strong stage presence as Helen, who was more inclined than her husband to accept the reality of her time. Shapiro was a sweet and loving Helga, even as she tried in vain to keep their relationship unaffected by external forces. Thomas, as Nancy Astor, encapsulated the soul of the play -- at first a delightfully energetic and accepting character, she revealed a virulent anti-Semitic bent which dashed the hero's hopes. Similarly, Ken Dray as a university academician offered hope, until his own limitations forced him to withdraw it. Sam Greene was something of a puzzlement as Mussolini, who throws Jefferson out of the country (an interpolation of the playwright's).
Director Bill Wood also designed an effective, all-purpose set. Decorated with pictures of the race struggle, it helped to highlight the play's story and foreshadow future conflicts. Billie Holliday's rendition of "Strange Fruit," a song about a lynching, was played as the lights when down and the story began. It set the right note.
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Copyright 1998 David Mackler