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REFLECTIONS ON A MOST DANGEROUS PLAY

By Dan Friedman, Artistic Director, Castillo Theatre


Du Bois and Baraka

Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois) is both a history play and a historic play. It’s a history play in that it deals with a shameful period of American history when the authorities were ruthlessly attempting to stamp out progressive political dissent. It’s a historic play in that it’s the last play written by the late Amiri Baraka, who passed away in 2014. This is its world premiere.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was one of America’s greatest intellectuals and political leaders. Born in Massachusetts on February 23, 1868 — three years after the end of the Civil War — Du Bois died at the age of 95 in Ghana on August 27, 1963. This was the night before Dr. King’s March on Washington. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctorate (and it was from Harvard). He was a co-founder, in 1909, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He organized the first Pan African Congress in 1919. He was the editor of the NAACP’s influential journal The Crisis for decades, and the author of many books of sociology and history. His most influential book was The Souls of Black Folks, published in 1903, in which he famously and prophetically wrote, “...the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

Throughout his life, Du Bois was uncompromisingly committed to the rights of African Americans and the development of the Black community. In his later years, to became a Marxist, finding common cause with poor and oppressed people of all colors. In this regard, there is a parallel to be drawn with the playwright Amari Baraka, who began public life as an assimilationist Beatnik poet in the 1950s, became a Black Nationalist and pioneer of the Blacks Arts Movement in the 1960s, and eventually, like Du Bois, embraced Marxism. It’s not surprising then, that Baraka’s play looks at Du Bois in his later years when the United State government was attempting to jail him for his political views and activities.


Du Bois and Marcantonio

The central event of the play is the 1951 trial of Du Bois and other leaders of the Peace Information Center, which advocated the banning of all nuclear weapons. Since the Soviet Union at the time also opposed nuclear arms, the U.S. Justice Department claimed that the Peace Information Center was acting as an agent of the Soviet Union and demanded that its leaders register as foreign agents or go to jail. It was one of scores of such trials that took place during this era of repression, but due to Du Bois’ stature in the Black community and around the world it drew particular attention. Du Bois’ lead attorney was Vito Marcantonio, the other main character in the play.

Marcantonio served as the U.S. Congressman from East Harlem for 14 years. When he was first elected in 1934, East Harlem was overwhelmingly Italian American, as was he. After the war there was a large influx of newly arriving Puerto Ricans. Both groups sent him to Congress seven times with large margins of victory. During his time in Congress, Marcantonio became the major national spokesperson for American progressivism. He was elected on the line of the American Labor Party (ALP), which was founded in the depths of the Depression and brought together trade unionists, community organizers, socialists, communists and other progressives. It was the ALP that assured Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s elections, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was first elected to the City Council as its candidate. Most Dangerous Man opens in 1950, at an ALP rally in Madison Square Garden. That year the party ran Du Bois for U.S. Senate and Marcantonio for Congress. Du Bois received 200,000 votes.

It was in that election that Marcantonio was finally defeated after extended vicious attacks in the press. The Daily Mirror, for example, ran 58 articles attacking Marcantonio in the run up to the election, falsely accusing him of, among other things, working with the Mafia and consorting with prostitutes. The political polarization and anti-progressive hysteria of the time is reflected in the fact that when Marcantonio died in 1954, the Catholic Church denied him a requiem mass and burial in a Catholic cemetery. Nonetheless, tens of thousands jammed East Harlem’s streets for his funeral procession, and Du Bois delivered the eulogy.

During the Peace Information Center trial, many moderate leaders in the Black community distanced themselves from Du Bois, and the NAACP refused to issue a statement of support for its founder. Marcantonio succeeded in winning an acquittal for Du Bois and the others, but the State Department nonetheless denied Du Bois his passport for the next eight years. When he finally got it back, he spent the last few years of his life as depicted at the end of the play, traveling the world and settling in the newly independent African nation of Ghana, where he became a citizen and, in 1961 at the age 93, joined the Communist Party.


Du Bois and Graham

The third character based on a historical person in Most Dangerous Man in America is Shirley Graham, Du Bois’ second wife. In the play she is depicted primarily as a loyal partner to her besieged husband, but she was also an accomplished and influential artist and activist long before she and Du Bois married in 1951, the same year as the trial.

Born in Indianapolis in 1896, the daughter of a minister, in the 1920s Graham studied musical composition at the Sorbonne. Back in the United States she earned a B.A. and M.A. at Oberlin College and began writing plays and operas. Her 1932 opera

Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, told the story of the forced African journey to America and the struggle for freedom. It drew 10,000 people to its premiere at the Cleveland Stadium and 15,000 to its second performance. In 1936 she was appointed the director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. In the late 1940s she became a member of Sojourners for Truth and Justice, an African American women’s organization working for global women’s liberation. Along with Du Bois, she became a citizen of Ghana and in her later years wrote biographies for young readers of Paul Robeson, Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, among others.


Du Bois Today

Like Du Bois, Amiri Baraka remained radical and controversial until the end. In this, his last play, he shares with us his vision of the last years of one of his heroes. Baraka’s longtime friend and artistic collaborator, Woodie King, Jr., is bringing the script to life on the Castillo stage through his New Federal Theatre. Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois) is epic, almost filmic, in its aspiration and structure. It cuts back and forth between political rallies, trial scenes and a barbershop and beauty salon in Harlem, where the ordinary people of the community react to the trial and express their hopes for the future. When the performance is over, it’ll be our turn to return to our barber shops and beauty salons, schools, churches and unions, react to the experience of this “most dangerous” play, and create our own hopes for the future.

The world premiere of Amiri Baraka’s last play, The Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois), directed by Woodie King, Jr. is being produced by the New Federal Theatre in association with the Castillo Theatre at the All Stars Project youth development and performance center located at 543 West 42nd Street, NYC through June 28, 2015.