Race, romance is center stage in Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington

LOS ANGELES-The entanglement of a love affair or a close friendship is always up for interpretation from outsiders. When this matter focuses on historical figures, the subject becomes a little more complicated and more closely examined. When this kind of relationship involves the always lighting rod of interracial collaboration, the grits then find a way to hit the pan.     

That is the case in the beautifully written stage play Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington, which is making its West Coast premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown Los Angeles. The premise of this storyline centers on the appearance of a possible budding romance between a societal influential white woman and W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African American scholar and writer.      

Ben Guillory as W.E.B. Du Bois in the stage play “Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington.” Photo by Matthew Leland/Robey Theatre Company

Put on by the Robey Theatre Company in association with the Los Angeles Theatre Company, Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington raises interesting questions about race and romance, especially when that backdrop is set in a time when that kind of reality would absolutely be taboo.       

The name W.E.B. Du Bois is very recognizable to many people. But if you’re lacking in the history department, you have to do some research to find out who Mary White Ovington was. Ovington is the obscure, behind-the-scene race power broker who sought to bring attention to the unequal treatment of people with African descent and people of color.

By default, finding ways to help the disenfranchised Negro and others became part of Ovington’s DNA growing up. Both her parents were abolitionists, so it was almost natural that Ovington take up the mantle to help the oppressed.

It was Ovington who got the itch to try to form a race-nullified organization to address this issue. Du Bois helped scratched that itch for Ovington when he helped her in forming the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP), and served as editor of the Crisis, the magazine of record for the oldest civil rights organization.

If you’re not too familiar with Du Bois, checking out his most famous work-Souls of Black Folk-still highly recommended reading, might be an option. Fictionalized or otherwise, playwright Clare Cross does a wonderful job of bringing a great bit of intrigue and drama to the close interaction between Du Bois and Ovington. The time is 1915.

It is six years after the NAACP officially have been launched. By this time, Du Bois (played with stately presence by The Robey Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Ben Guillory) has had enough of the shade and opposition thrown his way by NAACP white board members and contemplates exiting the organization.

Melanie Cruz in “Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington” at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Photo by Matthew Leland/Robey Theatre Company

Ovington (Melanie Cruz) won’t allow Du Bois to quit. Set in the NAACP office in New York, Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington is really about the realistic lifeline Cruz and Guillory manages to bring to their individual roles. Guillory is almost too good at playing Du Bois that you begin to think that the famed sociologist is indeed the one on stage.  

Cruz’s performance as Ovington is every bit as powerful as Guillory’s splendid acting. The actor’s toe-to-toe rapid-fire monologue in Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington is what makes this theatrical masterpiece special. The more Ovington tries to talk and convince Du Bois not to leave the NAACP, the closer the two friends and co-workers get, at least that is the storyline that Cross gives to the audience.   

The fireworks get turned up on one particular day when Ovington catches Du Bois by happenstance as her colleague unleashes his pent-up frustration with the organization he co-founded. This actually turns out to be a good thing, because a Du Bois-less NAACP would not have had the tooth to fight the equality battle without the established black leader wielding his large swath of influence.

Ovington was not about to let that happen, and spends the entire time throughout the play trying to convince her pal to not throw in the towel. At some point of her persuasive efforts, Ovington wasn’t just fighting for Du Bois to stay with the organization, she was fighting to hold back some kind of inner-kept feelings.

At least it appears that way. She isn’t the only one holding back.                         

Between his intellectual rants about his NAACP colleagues to his backdoor admiration of Ovington, Du Bois, exhibited wonderfully from the dignified Guillory, demonstrates that he is a complex man, an individual whose quest for racial justice was never quenched.

As Du Bois’ fire rages, through light humor, couched soothing and a dash of light-hearted, flirtatious conversations, Ovington manages to calm the brooding activist long enough for him to re-consider his earlier position of resigning. That is what friends are for, isn’t it?

The back-and-forth banter between Guillory and Cruz is well-timed and reflects the bigger picture of the well-coordinated chemistry this excellent pair of thespians offer. Cruz is simply marvelous as the thoughtfully affectionate Ovington. In exhibiting the quiet strength of Miss Ovington, and adding a bit of wittiness to her character, Cruz’s work on stage is worth the price of admission itself.  

That’s not to say that Guillory takes a backseat to his fellow castmate as the carefully-processed Du Bois. Guillory gives his Du Bois role a larger-than-life presence that takes up the whole room. The combination of Guillory’s eloquence and Cruz’s hospitable charm makes an invitation to see Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington difficult to turn down.         

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington runs until May 21, 2017, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Address is 514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90013. For more information, please call (213) 489-7402. Reservations can be made at www.robeytheatrecompany.org.

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