“My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being black,” says Keyonn Sheppard as Bayard Rustin, close adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, a brilliant strategist who played a significant role in nearly every civil rights victory between the 1940s and the 1970s. “Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me.”
In “The Artivist,” an hour-long one-man show in the 35-seat East Village Playhouse, we’re introduced to Bayard Rustin dressed in a black and white striped prison uniform, serving 30 days on a North Carolina chain gang for taking a seat in the front of a bus – years before Rosa Parks did. It was one of his many bouts in prison. We learn that Rustin was the one who drew up the plans for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and we’re made privy to the conversation he had with King during the Montgomery bus boycott explaining “the non-violence strategies of leader of the Indian Independence Movement Mahatma Gandhi.” We watch actual snippets of Rustin debating Malcolm X,one of a constant stream of historical stills and video projected onto the backdrop on the small stage. We see Rustin reacting to the Watts riot in 1965 and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
We also listen to Sheppard sing rap songs and Negro spirituals. The raps are new, composed by music director Hassan ElGendi, that smartly transpose Rustin’s message and his energy to a modern idiom. The spirituals were among those Rustin actually sang as a professional singer and recording artist, which paid his way through college.
Sheppard is a charismatic performer with a commanding voice; he’s also a great mimic, persuasively impersonating a Southern prison boss and a few other nameless bigots, as well as segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond and civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins, A Phillip Randolph, Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr.
We’re told that Bayard Rustin was frequently attacked, and not just by enemies of civil rights, but by some of its leaders. We briefly learn what ammunition his enemies used. In his youth, Rustin had joined the Young Communist League. He also had been imprisoned for 28 months as a pacifist of conscience for refusing to serve in World War II. But the attacks came mostly because Rustin was gay, and indeed had served one of his jail sentences “on a morals charge,” as Thurmond puts it. “He is a communist homosexual.”
It is a testament to Rustin’s extraordinary gifts as organizer and activist that he overcame what many mid-20thcentury Americans considered irredeemable stigmas to make his mark on history, although his long-time outsider status surely helps explain why he is not now as well known as his peers. (There has been some effort recently to bring him back from obscurity, especially since 2012, the centennial of his birth. In 2013, 26 years after Rustin’s death, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)
“The Artivist” writer and director Carla Debbie Alleyne deserves praise for paying homage to this remarkable man, with a production that Alleyne says is the first of a revivified City Kids Foundation, which was founded in 1985 to offer young people opportunities for personal growth and artistic expression.
It needs be said that “The Artivist” is neither as polished a work of theater nor as satisfying a record of Rustin’s achievements as it could be, especially to those of us who have watched the 2002 documentary film “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” currently available on Kanopy (a streaming site that is free for public library card holders.) That first scene of Sheppard in prison garb and leg irons, for example, is awkwardly staged, and doesn’t even mention what is surely the most important aspect of that episode: As a result of a series of articles Rustin wrote about his experience on that chain gang, North Carolina discontinued its use of chain gangs.
Still, it will be a thrill in particular to those who have never heard of Bayard Rustin to come face to face with this professional troublemaker of relentless integrity and singular effectiveness. “The Artivist,” with tickets at $22.50, is running at East Village Playhouse only through February 17th. It seems an ideal show to tour New York City schools.