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BEATE HEIN BENNETT
“Adam, Where Art Thou?”
“ADAM” by Peter DeAnda
Timothy Simonson as Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Photo by Gerry Gpoodstein.
February 9 to March 12, 2017
Presented by New Federal Theatre
In association with Castillo Theatre
At Castillo Theatre, 543 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY
Thurs—Sat @ 7:30 PM, Sat & Sun @ 2 PM
$40 general admission; Box office (212) 941-1234 or www.castillo.org
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett February 10, 2017
New York City history is full of colorful, controversial, gutsy politicians who cranked the cumbersome wheel of social history just a little bit faster than it turned in the rest of the country. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (1908-1972) was one of those political figures that left an indelible mark on the city. For good reason, Seventh Avenue beyond 110th Street is named Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard; on the corner of 125th Street the Adam Clayton Powell State Building has housed Bill Clinton’s office since he left the White House. Powell started as a community organizer in Harlem at age twenty-two when he demanded that white-owned businesses along 125th Street must not only take the money from their black customers but must hire black workers so that money earned from the black community would also stay in the black community. That was just the beginning. From there he went on, in the 30s and 40s, to become a civil rights leader who challenged the status quo and fought for black professionals to obtain equivalent positions in such institutions as the MTA, the Harlem Hospital, utility companies, and drugstore chains.
Elected to Congress in 1944 and as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, he prepared the way for the big civil rights battles in the 50s under President Eisenhower and in the 60s during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. He is recognized today as the founder of Black Identity Politics. Being of mixed racial background (African-American, Native American, and German), he was light complexioned and able to pass for white but identified utterly with the Negro cause—in the 40s he berated fellow congressman Rankin from Mississippi for using the word “nigger” on the House floor. A man of large emotions, large appetites, and powerful rhetoric—he followed his father as Pastor of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem—his jet-set lifestyle and cavalier attitude towards public money made him vulnerable to accusations of corruption. By the end of the 60s he lost his political base and his seat to Charles Rangel. He retreated to Bimini, his favorite fishing place, and died in 1972, probably of cancer.
Woodie King, Jr., founding producer of the New Federal Theatre and for the past fifty years one of the pioneering elder statesmen of African American theater under whose tutelage renowned Black actors, directors, and playwrights were able to flourish and become part of mainstream American culture, writes: “ADAM” takes the audience on a dramatic journey through the life of this legendary African American who changed American history. It’s especially important for younger audiences to comprehend the relentless determination of a man like Adam as he faced inconceivable challenges in pursuit of racial equality. Adam laid the framework for achievement by contemporary African American political figures including President Obama.” Dan Friedman, Artistic Director of Castillo, a theater dedicated to social and political themes, points out that Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was also “an important advocate on the international stage for the anti-colonial struggles of Africa and Asia.”
Peter DeAnda’s dramatic monologue takes us through the political and social battles that Powell fought on behalf of the African American community for which he became the spokesperson. The play contains only sketchy references, albeit emotionally charged, to his personal biography. Timothy Simonson who plays Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is particularly affecting as he narrates the story of his father’s childhood in rural Virginia; being the offspring of an unknown German father and a mixed-race mother (Native American and African), he was brought up by his uncle Dunning, a freed slave who had been branded on his back with his master’s initial “P.” In fact, I wished that there had been more moments of personal insight (not gossip) into the psyche of this large spirited man as he is hurtling through a life of public challenges.
Where Simonson’s rhetorical ability shines is in the role of Powell as preacher—his voice and cadences soar rendering the words into flashes of lightening. The fast-paced script does not give the character (or the actor) much breathing space in which to reflect on what is happening to him. The only image that implies such a moment is at the beginning of the play and reprised at the end—and it is beautiful. It shows Adam Clayton Powell dressed in a Hawaian shirt and a white captain’s cap, with dark sun-glasses, a cigar dangling from his lips and a sly smile, as he sits by the sea in Bimini, his favorite fishing place, casting with an imaginary fishing rod and losing the imaginary fish.
The director Ajene D. Washington helps the audience identify the different stations of Powell’s positions by having him change pieces of costume and move to different sides of the stage. Chris Cumberbatch has designed a simple space with a semi-circular scrim for projections and, off to both sides down-stage, beautifully executed renderings in impressionistic gray of iconic NYC architecture. Bill Toles created effective projections derived from historical photographs; he also put together a medley of historical jazz recordings, including some with Abby Lincoln, and the Depression classic “Brother can you spare a Dime.” Subtle lighting by Antoinette Tynes helps to localize and clarify the mood of a moment in this fast-paced public biography of a complex personality.
As we experience the present political time like a series of slaps in the face by an administration intent on rolling back the strides made in the civic life of the US, this biographical play about a prescient and courageous politician presented with great passion by the artistic team of the New Federal Theatre may just be the antidote with which to encourage continued outspoken political action.
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