Most of us have heard of Booker T. Washington as the counterpoint to W.E.B. DuBois, one espousing the “safe’ position of newly freed blacks to better themselves through industry and service while the other struck a more aggressive tone demanding higher education opportunities and social equality.
As Washington, Gregory Burgess brings the educator to life with a strong resonating baritone voice and animated delivery. The songs ebb and flow seamlessly with messages of self- determination, integrity and community. Born into slavery just before Emancipation, Washington taught himself to read and progressed through the educational ranks. His inspiring speeches were filled with admonitions about doing one’s best, self-care, self-improvement and hard work. To a downtrodden generation just out of chattel servitude, he was a beacon of hope. Character Building is a collection of his messages that range from making the best of one’s time, to keeping a clean appearance, to being dependable and helping others.
Taken on face value, the messages are invaluable lessons of courage and fortitude. Who knew that Washington sang gospel songs as part of his rousing speeches? Burgess relays the text with an earnest appeal bringing the audience into his fold. Long before there was Sammy Davis Jr’s “Yes, I Can,” there was Washington’s memoir “Up From Slavery.” Character Building is the composite of the underlying premises that Washington espoused that for black people to succeed – to do their best with courage and positivity.
closes February 24, 2018
Details and tickets
Washington’s condoning of racial segregation put him at odds with those who demanded more immediate social activism, but Character Building focuses on the inner journey of building internal strength and determination to improve no matter, what the circumstances. To a people nearly broken by generations of bondage, his words and soothing gospel messages in “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” ” Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “Joshua and Jericho” were a balm in Gilead for weary souls. Accompanied by Scott Farquhar, Washington’s message is a reminder of the importance and timeless relevance of inner strength, fortitude and self-reliance to us in these still turbulent times.
A small company dedicated to encouraging the arts, American Ensemble Theater is already in its sixth season. Part of its mission is “to create a safe and joyous ensemble in which theater artists can thrive– in sum, to serve a play, its artists, and the public.” In its own way, and with an urgency of a short run (only 3 Saturday performances remain) Character Building does just that with this uplifting historical reminder of strength in the midst of adversity.
Character Building by Dr. Booker T. Washington. Adapted for the stage and directed by Martin Blank . Starring Gregory Burgess as Booker T. Washington . Musical Direction and Pianist: Scott Farquhar . Set Design: Halsey Taylor . Costume Design: Kristina Lambdin . Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Stage Manager: Alaska Harris . Produced by American Ensemble Theater . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.