Clare Coss’s new play, Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington, takes up the relationship between W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary White Ovington, two co-founders of the NAACP, who find themselves unexpectedly alone together in their Manhattan office one Sunday morning in June 1915. With Du Bois furiously intent on resigning from the association over racial hostilities in its leadership, the drama hinges on Ovington’s efforts to assuage his anger and save their organization in the hour before he must depart to catch a train. The two share a love of justice, a faith in interracial solidarity, and a simmering desire for one another.
The piece — a production by the New Federal Theatre, a company that is one of the last surviving remnants of the 1960s Black Arts Movement — is mostly psychological, focusing more on Ovington’s perspective. It performs the admirable work of bringing to light her otherwise untold story as a collaborator, partner, and would-be lover to one of America’s leading intellectuals. The characters occasionally get bogged down in relating their wealth of historical detail, sometimes seeming more like objects of research than dynamic, living beings. Although the writing is both erudite and elegant, there’s also something old-fashioned about it structurally, with heavy traces of mid-20th-century dramatic naturalism.
Nevertheless, Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington doesn’t fail to impress, particularly in performance. Kathleen Chalfant and Timothy Simonson both offer careful, committed interpretations of Ovington and Du Bois, respectively. Chalfant’s performance is especially lively. Despite her storied career as one of the American theater’s great professionals, here she feels almost like an amateur in the least pejorative and most etymological sense of the word. She plays Ovington with an unpretentious charm and with what seems like outright love: love for the history, love for the theater in general, love for the uniquely meaningful work of groups and communities like the New Federal Theatre specifically.