Playwright Michael Benjamin Washington’s “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” is a remarkably enthralling civil rights drama, onstage at La Jolla Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre through Oct. 4.
Washington’s play takes audiences behind the scenes of the Aug. 28, 1963 political rally known as the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — and is brilliant and full of insight. It is further enhanced by the playwright’s performance in the title role of rustin. Washington was previously seen at the playhouse in “The Wiz” and “Memphis.”
We first meet Rustin when he enters the new office that will be home base to the best of his intentions, as well as some really turbulent times.
Rustin is anxious to work with Martin Luther King Jr. during the early years of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, but his homosexuality complicates his future — especially when the news is broadcast to the nation by a congressman from Harlem.
Fortunately for Rustin, his talents as an organizer are much needed in the days leading up to the march. A. Phillip Randolph (Antonio t.J. Johnson) is Rustin’s mentor, friend and the man who chose him for the job. They spend many hours together, sometimes agreeing on their objective to create a march on Washington, but strongly disagreeing at other times.
Rustin is soon blessed when Miriam Caldwell (Mandi Masden) shows up and turns out to be a topnotch secretary. She ignores the personal conversations she hears about Rustin’s lifestyle and past, and commits to her job. At one point, she asks Rustin why he and Phillip use such formal, lofty language. He replies, “I do this to confuse the white people,” a little levity in an otherwise terse and tense production.
Ro Boddie adds to the cast as Martin Luther King, Jr., his every word and action a testimony to the gravity of the march and its mission.
the faith element is an unexpected facet of the play. When Rustin becomes frustrated as one plan after another of his is derailed, randolph throws out a bible chapter and verse, and Rustin recites the whole thing. It’s a witty way to reveal the fabric of these men.
The power of the production is due in part to outstanding direction by Lucie Tiberghien and the amazing playhouse artisans who worked on the set. Scenic design by Neil Patel and John Narun include the appearance of words on a blackboard with no person writing them, a reflecting pool and scenes of the historic march.
To see a playwright actually play out his dream and passion on stage is a rare treat that theatergoers will certainly have here.
“Bayard Rustin was not only what has been teamed a ‘lost prophet’ of the Civil rights movement, he was also the truest personification of a renaissance man. (He was) a classical singer and trained actor who performed on Broadway with Paul Robeson, and to have the meticulous mindset to be able to organize anything, on any level, in any period of time, to great effect is a rare heroic quality,” said Washington in an interview with Gabriel Greener, director of new play development.
■ IF YOU GO: “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” runs through Oct. 4 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD campus. Tickets from $20. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org