Bayard Rustin’s Historic Civil Rights March: Playhouse poised for premiere of ‘Blueprints to Freedom’

Last year’s “Selma” — an Oscar nominee for Best Picture — brought the unresolved issue of freedom back to the forefront for new generations. Theatergoers are in for a similar reawakening when the world-premiere of “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” debuts at La Jolla Playhouse, Sept. 8–Oct. 4. The script comes from Michael Benjamin Washington. Lucie Tiberghien directs the production.

Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man born a Quaker, was a civil rights activist who early in his life became a conscientious objector during World War II. He spent a few years in jail, and, while there tried to racially integrate the prison system.

“Blueprints” begins in 1963 where Rustin is a proponent of non-violent civil disobedience. In the South, racial tensions have fostered a radical state of violence and danger. Rustin is assigned to organize a march for jobs and freedom. However, he becomes exiled from the Civil Rights Movement and struggles with his last chance for professional re-establishment and spiritual redemption.

Tiberghien, who directed the Playhouse’s acclaimed production of the Afghan war-centered “Blood and Gifts” in 2012, as well as the DNA New Work Series readings of “Tranquil and Being Henrietta,” replaced director/actor Phylicia Rashad, who left the production citing scheduling conflicts. Tiberghien said she decided to become a director after watching directors at a Geneva, Switzerland dance school she attended. She adds this production to her lengthy resume and said she became intrigued by Rustin’s story when she saw the PBS documentary “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.”

“I was interested in Bayard’s life, contributions and personal and political story,” Tiberghien said. “He worked closely with Martin Luther King and was the main architect of the March on Washington in 1963. That’s the event this play is centered on. Bayard traveled to India, and after Gandhi was assassinated, he studied nonviolence. He encouraged Martin Luther King to embrace the ideas of passive resistance and nonviolence as a way to make change.”

Washington wrote the play and also stars as Rustin. Tiberghien acknowledged his challenge. “It’s hard to be inside and out at the same time,” she said. “He’s doing an incredible job and is a wonderful actor. He has to step outside and look at the play objectively, and then step inside and look through the eyes of the main character. For me to help guide that process is very interesting.”

Tiberghien said the creative team of Neil Patel, scenic design; Beth Goldenberg, costume design; Lap Chi Chu lighting design; Joe Huppert, sound design; John Narun, projection design; Gabriel Greene, dramaturg; and Peter Van Dyke, stage manager, is essential in this type of production.

“Michael’s writing is really strong and he has a clear sense of visuals, so he has written in a lot of visual projection into this project,” she said. “The work of the production designer, as well as the other designers, is key in making this historical event a theatrical piece. The march itself is an exciting, big production with historical footage and images. There’s a scene with Rustin and King that reveals who they are behind closed doors. I was also intrigued that Michael, with great insight, wrote a female character who is passionate and very active politically and socially.”

“Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” is a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Of the production, Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley said, “With victories and setbacks to the cause of equality in the news every day, the ideas and themes of ‘Blueprints to Freedom’ call out urgently to us. We’re proud to welcome this dynamic and talented cast and creative team to illuminate Bayard Rustin’s quest for identity and redemption.”