La Plata na­tive to de­but play on 1920s Vaudeville era

Lo­cal play­wright de­picts early 1920s in re­cent work

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By TIF­FANY WATSON twat­son@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @Tif­fIndyNews

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.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

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.

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