La Plata native to debut play on 1920s Vaudeville era
Local playwright depicts early 1920s in recent work
A brand new play highlighting forgotten African-American history in Charles County will debut this weekend in Washington, D.C., and it’s an intense drama.
After receiving critical acclaim for its last production by Helen Hayes, “Chocolate Covered Ants,” Restoration Stage Theatre returns to present “The Very Last Days of the First Colored Cir- cus,” written by Steven A. Butler Jr. and directed by Courtney Baker-Oliver. From Feb. 15 through March 5, audiences will see the complicated life, love story and loss of a forgotten black circus performer.
The audience will enjoy seeing a talented cast, musical performances, Vaudeville circus performances and 1920s-style music. The play is set at the 1927 Charles County Fairgrounds in Butler’s hometown of La Plata. Butler tells the story of how his great-grandpar- ents, Ollie Tyson and Ruby Dyson, fell in love and raised a family in La Plata. Though the play is based on his grandpar- ents’ real work and love story at the local fair, Ollie’s circus and subsequent adventures are fictionalized.
“Ollie had a traveling group of performers called ‘The Ollie Thomas Colored Circus.’ He sold his circus to Benjamin Boswell, and Boswell makes them all servants. Racism comes as Ollie is trying to be the man he wants to be and Boswell is keeping him from doing that. Ollie has to choose between his true love and figuring it out if it is worth getting the cir- cus back from Boswell,” Butler said.
The audience will watch as the cast navigates through Ollie and Ruby’s struggles that African-American per- formers had to deal with in order to survive doing the art they loved.
“We have a rich cul- ture,” said Baker-Oliver. “We have been able to survive a great deal and still look good, still sing and dance and shine despite everything. [The audience] gets to see what our ancestors lived through — being addressed a certain way to your face. People will recognize the [President Donald Trump] like character represented in Benjamin Boswell. But the play shows that we know how to resist ... it’s with our heart.”
Butler is a longtime playwright who is also the first African-Amer- ican man to be named to the Arena Stage Play- wrights Arena program. He grew up with his grandparents in La Plata, so the play reflects much of Charles County’s history — including the annual fair and Queen Nicotina contest.
“As a kid I always went to the Charles County Fair. My grandmother used to tell me stories about her parents, Ollie and Ruby, who were vaudeville performers that settled in Charles County. My great-grandparents used to work at the fair every year and I created a story about how they met along with broken pieces of our history,” Butler said.
Washington, D.C., na- tive Miles Folley plays Ollie Tyson, “the ringmaster,” and describes his character as an entrepreneur trying to make a name for himself despite the roadblocks he faces simply due to his race. Folley’s character, like others in the play, often wears blackface — a form of theatrical makeup used in the 19th century by performers to portray a black man.
“[The play] gives me a respect for those people in the past who performed in blackface because that’s all they had back then, and there was a lot of brilliant work they did,” Folley said. “It’s important to tell these stories to people about working together and the revolutionary act of the family standing their ground, but still compromising for progress giving nuance for what a black man can be for his black wife. It shows we are more than just slaver y.”
Pat Martin from Chestertown plays Boswell, owner of the black vaudeville circus that he swindles from Ollie. The entire cast describes Boswell as a bigot, racist and a very deplorable character.
“A couple of moments were a little rough. There’s a scene where I [scold Ollie] and I get nasty. It upset me per- sonally and I had to take a couple of beats to get myself back together and then move on. I had to go to places that were really dark in order to act that role. It can be a little tough,” Martin said.
Ayanna Hardy of Washington, D.C. plays Ruby Dyson, a character who must consistently inter- act with Boswell. With her Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker-like finesse, Ruby draws at- tention away from the fact that she joined the vaudeville circus in order to leave the world of prostitution behind her.
“The play causes us to understand what our ancestors had to deal with — what they had to do to pave the way for us to be at this point, and now there is almost the fear of reverting back. Ruby did things because she had no choice and she’s try- ing to work her way up. When she saw the circus, she saw a way out,” Hardy said.
Baker-Oliver said Hardy portrays Ruby with an incredible dignity that says, “This is what a lady looks like and how you demonstrate strength of character.”
The cast also features Largo resident Obinna Nwachukwu as Tumbler and Marbury resident Robert Hamilton as Colby Boswell, son of Benjamin Boswell. Hamilton’s character abandons his dad’s views for the moral route.
“The audience is going to love the realism. Nothing is sugarcoated because America’s history has hurt feelings and is not politically correct. Anyone who comes to see the play will realize that it is another step towards healing the racial animosity in this country and moving forward as a people,” Hamilton said.
“The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus” will run at Anacostia Playhouse in Washington, D.C., and tickets are $45-$55. For more information, call 202-7140646 or go to www.restorationstage.org.
Restoration Stage Theatre will present “The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus” on Feb. 15, created by playwright Steven A. Butler Jr. and directed by Courtney Baker-Oliver, pictured above. At right, Washington, D.C., native Ayanna Hardy plays Ruby Dyson in the production.