Theater archives

Tough-Minded Truth-Telling at the New Federal Theatre’s ‘In White America’


From the Wish It Weren’t Still Relevant Department comes the New Federal Theatre’s 50th-anniversary production of Martin Duberman’s historical docu-play In White America, which in its first staging at the Sheridan Square Playhouse was itself already looking back, illuminating its long-gone now with truths from earlier times. (Plus the folk-music politicking of its era and the living-newspaper approach of the original Federal Theatre.)

JoAnna Rhinehart’s performance is a wonder of pain and strength.

Duberman’s script mined potent monologues and occasional scenes from the corpus of American speeches, reporting, arguments, and prevarications about race. Here’s Thomas Jefferson opining that the enslaved lack the physical and intellectual capacities of white men; here’s South Carolina senator Ben Tillman in 1907 speaking in defense of lynching. More heartening, the cast of six also embodies Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and more, their speeches presented in something like conversational counterpoint. Most moving, in Charles Maryan’s barebones but vital production, is the testimony of those who weren’t orators: Elizabeth Eckford (JoAnna Rhinehart), a black teenager who faced a mob when trying to enter a Little Rock high school. Rhinehart’s performance is a wonder of pain and strength, but what hurts most is this nation’s reluctance to heed the call of Barack Obama that bookends this fiery revival: “For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.” Be ready to rage-cry. Alan Scherstuhl

In White America

By Martin Duberman

Castillo Theatre

543 West 42nd Street