Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois), Amiri Baraka’s last play, revisits a schizophrenic 1950s moment when the internationalism of African-American intellectuals clashed with McCarthyism’s isolationist paranoia. Needless to say, the prospect of black thinkers aligning themselves with global leftist movements fanned the hysteria of Red-Scared officials in the Justice Department. The result was a scandalous show trial charging revered philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois (Art McFarland) with subversion on flimsier-than-flimsy evidence. (He belonged to an international peace organization whose membership included communist-bloc countries.) It’s an overlooked chapter in American history and makes terrific material for a history play.
Unfortunately, Baraka’s quasi-cinematic script relies too heavily on inflated suspense and rapid-fire crosscutting to amplify a sham trial into courtroom drama. The charges against Du Bois were always wispy; there wasn’t much danger of his going to prison. Director Woodie King Jr.’s cumbersome production doesn’t help matters by laboriously switching scenery every time the locales change. Sometimes the turnovers feel almost as long as the brief scenes, stalling momentum. Still, you can’t help but admire the cast’s commitment to evoking the optimistic emergence of Pan-Africanism and Third World solidarity. And it never hurts to be reminded how eloquent, and how farsighted, Du Bois really was. His lucid awareness that economics was the real problem America had to solve was prescient then — and remains timely now.
Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B. Du Bois)
By Amiri Baraka
543 West 42nd Street