A new work by the distinguished playwright Robert Earl Price — based on the story of a white newspaper reporter from Pittsburgh who traveled through the South in 1948 as a black man — will have its world premiere at Washington College on Sept. 15.
All Blues — named for the 1959 Miles Davis classic from Kind of Blue, one of the most influential record albums of the 20th century — is being co-produced by the Washington College Department of Drama and the Atlanta, Ga., theater company 7 Stages, where the play will open with the same cast on Sept. 22.
Del Hamilton, co-founder and artistic director of 7 Stages, will play the role of Ray Sprigle, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who traveled through the South for 30 days in 1948 as a light-skinned black man named James R. Crawford. Sprigle’s guide was John Wesley Dobbs, an important political leader in Atlanta’s black community and an NAACP activist. Dobbs will be played by Chestertown musician Bob Ortiz.
Sprigle had already won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and he was famous both for his hard-hitting stories and for his penchant for going undercover to get them.
All Blues is a compelling meditation on the moral complexities of Sprigle’s venture across the country’s racial and geographic divide, which the reporter learned in his travels to call not the Mason Dixon, but the Smith and Wesson line. Sprigle’s journey took place more than a decade before the publication of Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s bestselling account of his own travels through the South as a white man passing himself off as black.
The lyrics and music of All Blues form a subtext to the play, which weaves light, movement, and a cast of characters that include the light and dark sides of Sprigle’s own soul into a moody meditation on race.
“The project will be built on the juxtaposition of one of the seminal pieces of music from the 20th century and a forgotten story,” says WC drama department chair Dale Daigle, who will direct the performance. “These two pieces provide a foundation for us to explore the ubiquitous and unavoidable feeling of being the ‘other’ and the complicated responses that we all have when confronted with the unknown in the form of another human being. By exploring these encounters — what Robert Earl Price calls a ‘slight’ and personifies in an eponymous character — we hope to take our audience on a journey that will be discomforting yet, hopefully, revelatory.”
The cast of All Blues includes acclaimed Kent County jazz singer Karen Somerville; Polly Sommerfeld, lecturer in the Washington College Department of Drama; and Washington College students Mike Zurawski ’12, Marta Wesenberg ’12, John Lesser ’12, Phaedra Scott ’14, Harris Allgeier ’14 and Zach Weidner ’14.
The set designer is 7 Stages co-founder Faye Hamilton. The lighting designer is Josh Schulman ’00 of Cohesive Light in Philadelphia. Brigid Lally ’12 designed costumes. And the video designers are Marta Wesenberg ’12 and Corey Holland ’10, who works on the staff of WC’s Multimedia Production Center.
All Blues is Robert Earl Price’s fifth premiere at 7 Stages during his 20 years there as playwright in residence. The award-winning playwright and screenwriter is also artist in residence in the drama department at Washington College, where he teaches creative writing and drama.
“By joining forces to take on Robert’s excellent ideas about race and racism, we not only expose Washington College students to new theatre art, and new ways of making theatre, but we also are teaching core values about the nation and how each of us fits into society,” says Del Hamilton of 7 Stages. “This is one of the major questions on the minds of young people these days: how to have a purposeful life.”
The Chestertown performances of All Blues will be at the Decker Theatre in the Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts at Washington College on Thurs. Sept. 15 at 8 p.m., Fri. Sept. 16 at 8:30 p.m. and Sat. Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 for the general public, $5 for seniors and students. More information can be found at www.washcoll.edu.
The play will be performed at 7 Stages in Atlanta with the Chestertown cast Sept. 22-25. Seven Stages will produce All Blues with its own cast Sept. 29 to Oct. 2. More information about the Atlanta performances can be found at www.7stages.org. “All Blues” is produced in part with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Maxcy Visiting Artist Endowment.