A Man For All Times: W.E.B. Du Bois

Tue 14th – Sat 25th August 2012

reviews

Laura Peatman

at 01:52 on 17th Aug 2012

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With the name of Du Bois ringing bells in my head that recalled faint reminiscences of history lessons, this dramatised biography promised to be both an entertaining and illuminating hour. In many respects, it fulfils these expectations – the show certainly paints a vivid picture of an extraordinary man’s life and work and Brian Richardson’s performance is excellent. Yet there are niggling aspects of the direction and presentation of this piece which, for me, holds it back from the outstanding show it so clearly has the promise to be.

For those who don’t know, Du Bois was a hugely influential figure in American civil rights activism, as well as a respected academic. This offers a wealth of fascinating detail and powerful emotion for Alexa Kelly (writer and director) and Richardson to draw on, and the performance captivates the audience from start to finish. Yet at times it feels as if factual detail has been rather awkwardly coerced into an emotional narration: for example, the visceral description of a lynching is truly distressing to listen to, but its shocking effect is cut off by the statistics that follow. They are more reminiscent of a history textbook than dramatic performance. Although designed to instil the extent of the horrors, this seems unnecessary as the relation of this single incident is far more powerful than the reeling off of facts. Similarly, the talent of Richardson does not require the support of date-referencing and name-dropping; interesting as it may be for the audience to learn about such details, they detract rather than add to Richardson’s impassioned performance – perhaps something to provide in programme notes instead of the script itself.

The shifts between different episodes of Du Bois’ life are accomplished skilfully with the assistance of simple props, but all the more impressively through Richardson’s change of tone and posture which somehow appear to visibly age him as he progresses into his “twilight years”: his hunched shoulders and fearful eyes during his trial particularly enhance the outward frailty of the ageing Du Bois. Yet these variances of tone need more space, and are rather rushed at times. Throughout the piece Richardson exudes carefree delight, a distraught sense of loss, and quiet rage, with immense skill; yet to truly take effect, this acting needs to linger, instead of being swept aside by the subsequent narrative arc. Richardson is brilliant when speaking, but if he used silence as wisely and subtly, his performance would be exceptional.

Furthermore, there are moments where changes of scene are marred rather than developed by unfortunately misplaced directorial decisions: the red light to signify stifling heat is a tad gimmicky, whilst the music which overlays certain poignant scenes is unnecessary. This is particularly true of the burial scene: if more trust was put into the power of Richardson’s voice alone, a solo address would have greater potency than this rather distracting combination of speech and soundtrack.

A fascinating subject combined with Brian Richardson’s considerable talent makes this a piece which is certainly well worth a watch. With some rethinking of production elements and with a slower, more lingering pace, this admirable show would become a fantastic one.

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Juliet Roe

at 11:23 on 17th Aug 2012

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This hour-long one man show attempts to convey the breadth of achievement and experience in the life of W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist who Martin Luther King idolised. I say attempts, not due to any fault of the production, but through the mammoth task it sets itself in tackling such an incredible life. Brian Richardson is very impressive as Du Bois: he resurrects this great, but somewhat forgotten campaigner and thinker with insight and sensitivity.

An hour long monologue could easily have become tiresome were it not for the exuberance and versatility of Richardson. Jumping from male to female, youthful to aged and from Du Bois to Marcus Garvey (probably the biggest leap) with ease, Richardson’s performance ensured that the piece contained tension, humour and complexity. The piece is only the tiniest bit over long, purely due to the sheer extent of anecdotal material Du Bois’ life offers.

On top of the skill in Richardson’s performance, the script itself (written by Alexa Kelly) is strong. Where there could be the temptation simply to list achievements of the venerable Du Bois, Kelly ensured that his journey never came across as effortless, even if the performance delivering it seemed so. When watching it, there were moments when my mouth dropped open on hearing Du Bois’ first hand accounts of lynchings in the South. This follows the clear aim of this piece not only trying to bring to our attention the enlightened thoughts of someone whose career was sadly tarnished by his Socialist ideals falling foul of American culture post-1945, but also to show the roots of the 1950’s and 60’s Civil Rights Movement in a personable and unusual way. Funny, distressing and insightful in equal measure, this show is well worth an hour of your time.

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