Ben #OFFSCENE on theatre telling real-life stories
Editor’s Note: This show is no longer running, but we thought it was important to share the story of such an underappreciated historical figure. We also wanted to open up a conversation about how theatre tells the story of people like Bayard Rustin, and how it impacts your perception of these individuals.
Bayard Rustin is not a household name. But The Artivist: The Bayard Rustin Story insists that he should be. That begs the question: How do you theatricalize historical figures in a way that pays proper homage to their real-life complexity?
Rustin is a great case study in this. A black, gay activist deeply influenced by his Quaker upbringing, Rustin was a onetime member of the Young Communist League who became a neoconservative by the end of his life. He was a staunch civil rights activist and leader, yet opposed identity politics and advocated for alliances with working-class white voters.
What to make of this historical enigma who was such an important part of the civil rights movement? When thinking of that era, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Rosa Parks come to mind first. Or even Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, Stokely Carmichael and others who have amassed more staying power in the American cultural consciousness. Often, we look to theatre to tell us stories that our textbooks neglected to. A show like Hamilton has probably informed tens of thousands of people about the man on the $10 bill for the first time, and enlightened so many to the immense complexities, accomplishments and blunt hypocrisies of the men who built America. And still, in that story we see a lot of embellishment and moments of historical inaccuracy (as examined in The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda). From a small Off-Broadway show like The Artivist to a blockbuster like Hamilton, how do we decide what history gets told and how?
The Artivist is a chronological story, albeit abridged. We are carried through America in the 1950s and ‘60s, as Rustin’s influence and activism grow into something truly remarkable. But importantly, this story is not a simple “rise to greatness” narrative. Rustin’s ascent is plagued by infighting and constant doubts. One particularly haunting revelation is how Rustin’s sexuality was used against him. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Baptist pastor and one of only a handful of black representatives in Congress at the time, demanded MLK remove Rustin from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the biggest civil rights organizations. And MLK did just that.
Theatre is critical in that it can help shed light on aspects of history and human nature that we may not want to think about. Like how even in one of the most celebrated movements in American history, those marching against oppression were still indulging their own prejudices. (This in no way diminishes any of the accomplishments of civil rights leaders, but helps bring LGBTQ+ people into the larger narrative).
It is always easier to read history (and even current events) as a long arc of good versus bad, of right versus wrong. But intersectionality teaches us that if we truly want to be educated, aware and informed, then we must recognize that our heroes and our enemies are more complex than we initially think. A black, gay, civil rights activist can also be a deeply religious man and a future neoconservative. An immigrant with a brilliant financial mind and discipline in his work can still lack self-control when it comes to his marriage.
Theatre inevitably takes dramatic license when bringing real-life stories to the stage. There’s a delicate balance to be struck between an honest retelling of history and a compelling show that people want to see. A one-hour lecture on Rustin won’t get as much attention as a one-man play with video footage, singing and rapping. But I think it’s important that even if we add a little glitz and embellishments, the core truth of the historical figure’s story needs to be maintained.
Ultimately the question is: Is it theatre’s job to stay true to history, or to craft the best story possible from that history?
What do you think?