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Acclaimed Play Dramatizes the Life of Ida B. Wells

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Laguna Beach

She's been described as a crusader for justice, defender of democracy, agitator, instigator, militant, uncompromising, and opinionated. She was a suffragette, anti-lynching crusader, NAACP co-founder, editor and publisher, speaker, writer, mother, and teacher. Constant Star, which opened...

... last week at the Laguna Playhouse, is an ode to this dynamic American figure: Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Wells-Barnett was born in 1862, six months before Emancipation to enslaved parents James and Elizabeth Wells in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her father was a carpenter and after emancipation became a political activist, heavily influencing the character of his daughter.

At the age of 16, both of her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic, leaving Wells-Barnett the eldest of seven living children. Her decision to not allow her family to be split apart was the first of many turning points in her life. At 16, she took a job teaching to support her family and eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee for a better paying job and access to advanced education.

Her career as a writer/activist was sparked in 1884 while travelling on the Cheasapeake Ohio and Southwestern Railroad. After paying for a first class ticket for the Ladies Car, Wells-Barnett was told she had to move to the smoking car. After refusing and being expelled from the car, she filed a lawsuit -- the first of its kind -- claiming that the railroad company did not provide separate and equal accomodations. She won her suit in the lower courts only to find the ruling overturned at the state supreme court level.

After accepting the editorship of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, she soon lost her teaching job due to her scathing editorials criticizing the Memphis School Board of Education. But it was what became known as the "Lynching at the Curve" in 1892 that catapulted Wells-Barnett into the international spotlight.

In March of 1892 three Memphis entrepreneurs were lynched by a white mob after they opened a grocery store across from a white owned store that had enjoyed a monopoly on servicing the Black community. The three entrepreneurs were close friends of Wells-Barnett. For weeks after the incident she wrote editorials claiming that the lynchings were economically motivated and supported by prominent white members of the community including law enforcement officers. She told her readers to leave Memphis and head west, to a place where their rights and property could be protected like other citizens.

This anti-lynching crusader found her life threatened and herself exiled from her southern home. She later published a book “A Red Record” documenting the history of lynchings in the South.

Tazwell Thompson's Constant Star captures the complexity of this great American's life. Thompson first learned about Wells-Barnett through a PBS documentary on her life. "Her story gnawed at me," he writes in an introduction to the script. "A woman born in slavery, she would grow to become one of the great pioneer activists of the Civil Rights movement. A dynamic, controversial, tempermental, uncompromising race woman, she broke bread and crossed swords with some of the movers and shakers of her time: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and President William McKinley."

Thompson created a fictional account of her life, in his own words. Following ten successful, critically acclaimed productions back East, this memorable tale of an unsung American hero makes its highly anticipated West Coast debut at the Laguna Playhouse until December 5, 2004.

In Constant Star, Ida B. Wells is portrayed by five talented actresses who also sing twenty classic spirituals a cappella in five-part harmony.

"Some of the most evocative, informative storytellers of the Black experience in America are the Negro Spirituals," Thompson continues. "A very strong history binds these songs to the long struggle for the physical survival and spiritual release of Blacks in this country. They are inseparable from the community's ongoing journey to America's promised land of equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Thompson directed Porgy and Bess at New York City Opera and on PBS' Live from Lincoln Center, for which he received an Emmy nomination. His production of Dialogue of the Carmelites was called "the hit and heart of the 2002 Glimmerglass Opera season." From 1992-1995, he served as artistic director of Syracuse Stage.

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