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A CurtainUp Review
Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington
By Joyce Friedland
The play is set in an office in downtown New York City, which is the headquarters for the New York NAACP. The year is 1915.
Chris Cumberbatch, the set designer, has created a dual office space that allows the two characters to interact in one of the spaces and yet act independently when alone in a single room. The set becomes a metaphor for two exceptionally independent individuals who must act alone and still be dependent upon one another to fulfill their goals.
They both want to end segregation and racism in America, yet they come to their activism from very different backgrounds. The set, which has an open window facing the street outside, becomes a harbinger of negative public opinion when eggs are hurled into the office.
Kathleen Chalfant effectively plays the suffragist, socialist, pacifist, settlement house founder, author and journalist. Her Miss Ovington She is no push-over, but she understands the limits of her activism as an unmarried woman in the early years of the twentieth century. Ms. Chalfant plays her role so convincingly that you believe you are witnessing the actual historical meeting between this white middle-aged woman and W.E.B. Du Bois, the well-known Harvard educated, African American.
It's a challenge for even the always wonderful Chalfant to play opposite Timothy Simonson's character. Even if you factor in the historic perception of Du Bois as an imperious, highly driven person, Mr. Simonson presents his character as too pompous He doesn't seem comfortable on stage and he communicates in a language so stilted that it is hard to accept the passion Miss Ovington shows as she struggles to restrain her romantic inclinations. It is also hard to believe that Du Bois really needs to run out of the office for a cigarette before things get too hot between them.
Is it the acting, the directing, or the text itself that causes the Du Bois character to undercut the realism and emotionality of their meeting? I am not sure, but I like the play and I like the Ovington character. I'd like to see a future production of this play with the language made to seem more realistic and the portrayal of W.E. B. Du Bois that is made to seem less pedantic and therefore more credible character.