Edinburgh Fringe 2012
W.E.B Du Bois was born a freeman shortly after the emancipation of slaves in the USA in the 19th Century. He died almost 100 years later in Ghana having been one of the founders of the Civil Rights movement and first director of the NAACP. Both feted and reviled in his life he remains one of the most important figures in US Civil Rights and unlike Dr Martin Luthor King or Malcolm X remains largely forgotten.
Edinburgh is hot and it is a blessing to walk into the cool air-conditioned venue to watch what turns out to be a very ‘cool’ show about the life of the rarely remembered godfather of the US Civil rights movement W.E.B Du Bois.
Born and raised in Barrington, Massachusetts a free-man it was only when he went to study in Tennessee that the issue of race and his colour was to become a major focus of his life. From the overt horrors of lynching to the fact that though he was given a job teaching in the State he was not allowed to eat with white people he began to formulate in his mind the ideals by which he was to live his life until he died just short of 100 years old.
As he said the greatest gift he could give was pride, diginity and the avenue of identity to black people and this would come via education. The first black student ever to enter Harvard (where he could not mix with the white students) followed by years studying in Europe where the racism of his youth was left behind crystallised his views.
Founder and first director of the NAACP he believed that by educating the top percentile of black people they could then educate the majority of the people to stand up for their rights and take their place in society as equals.
If this sounds familiar no surprise that by the 1950s and in his 80s the US had him in front of the McArthy Commission charged as a Communist (aquitted he did in fact join the American Communist Party at a later date). Also at the forefront of the Harlem Rennaissance that saw black literature, art and music enter the American mainstream he died in Ghana inthe 1960s.
In many ways this is a history lesson more than drama but a history lesson that grips you from the moment Brian Richardson takes the stage. The performance is remarkable with just the slightest facial movement or shake of the hand bringing to life Du Bois the young optimistic student to Du Bois the older statesmen refusing to give up his ideals when lesser men would have sat back and taken the plaudits for the remarkable work of his life.
The staging and lighting by the nature of the venue situated on the top floor of a hotel are spare but the subject matter and the performance need no more. Credit is also due to playwright and director Alexa Kelly – there is a lot of dense information in this piece but she brings to life this complex character with simple direct emotionally charged language.
Are there better plays on the fringe? Without a doubt but very few this year left me so educationally and emotionally stimulated as the life story of this great American hero.