LAWRENCE — Black lives have always mattered. And African-Americans have always struggled against racism and created artistic responses to it.
Long before hip-hop or social media – 100 years ago – playwright Angelina Weld Grimke responded to a call from the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, W.E.B. Du Bois, to write a play that would serve as anti-lynching propaganda.
That play, “Rachel,” was the first by an African-American woman to be given a professional production under the auspices of the NAACP. A handful of other productions followed, and then the play vanished, not to be revived until a 1991 production at Spelman College. Then it disappeared again for 23 years.
Now, University of Kansas Associate Professor of Theatre Nicole Hodges Persley has mounted just the second 21st-century production of “Rachel” and just the eighth overall. The KC MeltingPot Theatre company, where Hodges Persley is associate artistic director, stages “Rachel” through Nov. 20 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri.
Hodges Persley attended Spelman shortly after “Rachel” was staged there, and that’s how she came to know it. Telling stories of and by disenfranchised communities is the raison d’etre of MeltingPot Theatre, so when Hodges Persley joined the company a year ago, as #BLM was trending, she offered to direct “Rachel.”
“Maybe we can understand what’s going on by looking back,” Hodges Persley said. “This play was looking at a nuclear family dealing with the residual effect of anti-black violence. It affected this family generationally. The only safety and security these people have is in their home, and that’s what many people feel like right now … It’s really challenging for folks to find hope, for young people to feel like their lives matter when it looks like they are disposable.”
Rachel Loving, the play’s young, idealistic protagonist, agonizes over how “this white, Christian nation has set its curse” on African-Americans and how “the finest churchgoing people” could participate in a lynching. Both the second and third acts end with Rachel on the floor, declaiming passionate cris de coeur.
“It’s no different than a 20-something now who falls to pieces when she realizes the world is not as she thought,” Hodges Persley said. “I see it all around the KU campus. Kids come into my office crying. They didn’t realize the world was so racist, that their parents were flawed, that people could be so cruel.”
Hodges Persley said directing “Rachel” has been “one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” and she hoped the current production can spur more of the play.
Save for a couple of slight emendations, Hodges Persley said, she “left the text alone.”
She said the play failed to thrive “because people were afraid it was melodrama, but theater scholars know it’s important.”
“You have to see a vision, a concept, of how it can translate.”
Photo: The Loving family, from left: Lewis Morrow as Tom, Lynn King as Mary and Shawna Downing as Rachel struggle against racism in the play “Rachel.” Image courtesy Nicole Hodges Persley.