W.E.B. DuBois is a largely forgotten figure of African American history. Seventy years before James Meredith’s campaign to be the first African American student to be allowed to study at the University of Mississippi (a flashpoint in the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King) DuBois was graduating cum laude with a second degree from Harvard University. Unlike Meredith and King, however, DuBois’ name has mostly been forgotten from the public consciousness of the equal rights struggle in the United States. This one-handed play tells his story from a childhood largely untroubled by prejudice, through struggle and success, to his alienation from the homeland that branded him a Communist.
Brian Richardson plays DuBois with commitment and intensity. His affection for the character is evident in his every move. His performance is assured, taking DuBois through the gamut of emotions that defined his life. Amidst the emotional maelstrom, Richardson demonstrates his talent for comedic performance in the lighter touches he carefully reflects on DuBois. This is a respectful performance, lovingly portrayed. The small space in no way inhibits the telling of the story or the portrayal. What does constrain the show, however, is the timing. This is clearly an edited version of a much lengthier piece, which leaves Richardson hurtling through most of the text at prodigious speed. Whilst this lends force to the performance, it also means that his voice can at times seem a little clipped to ensure enunciation. Perhaps more damaging is the effect this has on the emotion of the piece. There are shocking moments (such as the retelling of the lynching of a local girl), but there is no time to let the enormity of these events sink in. Similarly, the tragedies that beset DuBois’ life have little time to really affect the audience. They simply happen and are over. The story moves on apace.
This is a wonderful tale that deserves to be told to a wider audience. The performance left me feeling as though I had skimmed the surface of a story I felt guilty I did not know and wanted to find out more. As a snapshot of a great man told by a performer at the top of his game, this is certainly an hour well spent.