Conversation with a Kleagle
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 13, 2009
Rudy Gray's play Conversation with a Kleagle is based on events in the life of Walter Francis White, a journalist who eventually became Executive Secretary of the NAACP. One of the most striking things about the play is that it depicts the true heroic acts of a man who admits to us that he's not especially brave: it's a riveting and memorable profile in courage, and it tells a story that's important to our collective history and character.
John Watson—the fictionalized version of White who is the protagonist of Gray's play—is a very light-skinned African American; his features and coloring are such that he is able to "pass" for white. When we meet him, in the late 1920s, he is working as a reporter at a "colored" newspaper in Chicago. He decides to take advantage of his ability to "pass" to get an interview with Randy Monahan, the sheriff of a small town in Louisiana and also the kleagle of the local Ku Klux Klan organization. John's ploy works, and he gets his story—a story that eventually helps expose the nefarious activities of the KKK to the rest of the country. But it turns out that Monahan was not in fact taken in, knowing all the time that John is not a white man. After the interview, Monahan and his cronies have plans to lynch this "uppity" reporter. Only a warning from Tookie, the black man who shines shoes at Monahan's place of business, enables John to escape with his life.
Back home in Chicago, John learns that Tookie has suffered reprisals as a result of his actions, and he decides—against the advice of his editor—to return to Louisiana and confront Monahan.
Conversation with a Kleagle progresses in a linear fashion to tell this compelling story, with a couple of digressions that provide important background. One of these is a dream sequence, in which we see John imagine what could have happened to him had Tookie not tipped him off about Monahan's intentions. (We actually see these events echoed in harrowing fashion later in the play when John returns to Louisiana and Monahan's Klansmen taunt the reporter.) The other is a flashback to Watson's youth, during the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906.
Gray's focus throughout is on the insidious evil of racism, and its roots in poverty and ignorance. Both the flashback sequence and the main narrative of the play make it clear that lynchings and other aggressive acts against blacks are, at least in part, the result of whites' fears of losing their economic footing and/or opportunities.
This production benefits from tight direction by Kevin B. Ploth, and sports a large cast including Tim Weinert as the empowered everyman hero of the story and Mike Pirozzi, who is excellent as his menacing antagonist Monahan. Erroll W. Greaves makes a key contribution as the bootblack Tookie, showing us not only that he "knows his place" when dealing with his white boss, but also what each genuflection costs him.
The fact that we now have an African American President of the United States tells us that we have made a lot of progress in the century since the events depicted in Conversation with a Kleagle. But racism has not disappeared, and it is important for us as a society to confront its ugly roots. Rudy Gray's play, revived by 13th Street Repertory Company as part of their "Best of 13" Festival, offers a valuable look at one aspect of this shameful part of our national history.