Watching "Constant Star" is a refreshing reminder of the vital role that stubbornly contentious characters have played in American history.
Tazewell Thompson's play with music, at Laguna Playhouse, is a tribute to Ida B. Wells. Anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, journalist who campaigned for a hundred specific causes over a lifetime of activism, Wells appears to have been one ornery cuss.
According to Thompson's script, she ran roughshod over her own comrades, as well as her adversaries. She sneered at the compromises of Booker T. Washington. At one point we hear Thompson scalding Republican President McKinley in words that sound as if they could have been lifted from a jeremiad against President Bush in 2004.
Yet Thompson also points out that Wells, who was born in the last months of slavery, during the Civil War, grew up to be a Republican in the pre-FDR days, when blacks like Wells associated the GOP with the likes of Lincoln. She ran for office once as a Republican.
By applying a framework of black spirituals to his biographical material, Thompson suggests that Wells viewed her activism as God's work. If she were alive today, and considering the causes that she backed, she might very well try to teach the Democrats how to do the same thing.
On the other hand, near the play's end, Thompson has Wells talking back even to God.
The spirituals are the play's salvation. They impart a sense of the bigger picture to the details of Wells' life -- which are not spelled out all that clearly in the rest of the play.
Thompson is less interested in a methodical biography than he is in evoking the passions that motivated Wells' activism. And the spirituals gloriously serve that purpose.
Thompson further turns away from documentary fidelity by splitting the role of Wells among five actresses. Only one in the Laguna production, directed by Thompson, is as conspicuously short as Wells was, and none has a clear-cut role as the most important Wells.
The five women take turns playing Wells and the characters she encounters. But in between the spoken scenes, they unite in five-part a cappella harmony in the spirituals. It's as if the little pieces of Wells' life, including her more thoughtlessly abrasive moments, are washed away in the overwhelming power of her inspirational personality.
The first part of the play is set in a rather ghostly looking newspaper office. Wells edited a journal called Free Speech in Memphis during the first part of her career. Although the scenes are a bit jumbled chronologically for no apparent reason, they're not difficult to follow.
We go in flashback to Wells' youth, when she lorded over her siblings and then had to take actual command of the family as a teenager, after the deaths of her beloved parents from yellow fever. Laiona Michelle plays Wells during these scenes with youthful abandon.
Wells files a lawsuit after encountering discrimination on a train. The harrowing news from Georgia of a particularly brutal lynching drives her to Britain to speak out about the supposedly Christian individuals who indulge in such pastimes. And the horror of watching the murders of three friends by a white mob finally drives Wells from Memphis.
After intermission, Wells operates mainly out of Chicago, where she finds a loving husband and gives birth, despite the disapproval of some of her feminist colleagues. However, she soon resumes her activism and makes it clear that she's no domestic.
The free-floating style of the play is matched by the design, which relies on Robert Wierzel's complex lighting and Fabian Obispo's sound to help establish time, place and mood.
The colors of Merrily Murray-Walsh's costumes stay muted, promoting the idea that all five actresses are Wells at her most self-denying -- but then a shockingly red gown breaks the pattern when Wells finally falls in love.
The musical direction and vocal arrangements by Dianne Adams McDowell are the constant star of "Constant Star" -- unfailingly moving and performed to perfection by Michelle, Nadiyah S. Dorsey, Quanda Johnson, Tracey Conyer Lee and Gayle Turner. All five women are veterans of previous "Constant Star" productions, and their ensemble work is so impeccable that even Wells herself might simply step aside and listen.
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Dec. 5 matinee
Price: $45 to $54
Contact: (949) 497-2787
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes