Stage & Dance

'Dazzled' by her story

For the past decade, Tazewell Thompson has been introducing theatergoers to Ida B. Wells.

Most people don't know much about Wells when they settle into their seats to see his musical biography of her, Constant Star, which opens this weekend at Actors Guild of Lexington for a four-weekend run. Thompson himself didn't know more than her name until he watched a PBS documentary on the civil rights and women's suffrage advocate who launched a relentless campaign against lynching in post-Civil War America.

"I was channel-surfing, and I came to PBS, and this documentary had just started on Ida B. Wells," Thompson says from his New York apartment. "I had heard of her, and I knew that she was a newspaperwoman, and she was connected to an anti-lynching crusade. She had just dazzled me in this documentary, and I couldn't stop thinking about her."

A year later, he was directing Shakespeare's Cymbeline at Playmakers Repertory Theatre in Chapel Hill, N.C. During his stay, he was offered a commission for a new work. It gave him a chance to look deeper into Wells' life.

He found a few books, including a biography and a diary, giving him deeper insight into Wells' feelings and mission.

Initially, he started writing a conventional play, but then things started happening.

"In all the scenes, she kept coming out as someone who took over, and the men in those scenes appeared diminutive in her presence," says Thompson, who is coming to Lexington for the show and will give a pre-show chat Saturday night. "I realized I could have a cast of three or four women to play all the roles.

"Once I discovered that, the play completely opened up for me and I discovered I could write it any way I wanted."

He eventually added one more woman, to make it five.

His soundtracks for writing the piece were spirituals, vintage recordings by Mahalia Jackson as well as renditions by newer artists, including Kathleen Battle.

"They would take me to a whole other place," Thompson says. "I could only write when I was listening to them. So the spirituals found their way into the play."

The tunes in the show include Balm in Gilead, O What a Beautiful City and Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.

Influences from Thompson's life also made it in, including drawing on strong women in his life, notably his mother and grandmother, for inspiration and finding that he and Wells had a mutual love of Shakespeare. The title is even drawn from William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar.

"I'm as constant as the Northern Star," Thompson says, recalling the line. "For her, she carried herself around as if she was this bright, shining, brilliant star and everything radiated from her center out into the world. And she was constant, she was stubborn, she was set in her ways, she was reliable."

Thompson is a prolific theater and opera director, and Constant Star in the best-known work from his own pen.

Thompson doesn't always visit productions of the show, but he said he is attending Actors Guild's production because he was invited. He said it will be interesting to see it, because out of 15 productions of the show, he has directed all but two. That includes a 2001 production at Actors Theatre of Louisville, one of several shows Thompson directed there.

The Lexington production is directed by Sidney Shaw, who helmed last year's production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and several other shows at AGL.

Thompson says he is interested in seeing how this production turns out. Wherever the show plays, he says most of the audience is getting its introduction to Wells, just like he was when he watched that documentary.

"That's extremely rewarding," Thompson says. "I feel that the theater is about opening up minds and educating and astonishing people and startling people and bringing audiences to new cultures and introducing them to different types of people."

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