So here we are in late 2017. And in the past several months, nooses have appeared in the Washington DC area, on the campus of American University, at the University of Maryland, inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, outside the Hirshhorn Museum – even hanging from a lamppost near the National Gallery of Art, as far as I could find in news accounts.
There is no better time to take in Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells, a play that will reintroduce local audiences to the words and deeds of Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Wells was a leading journalist fighting against racial injustice, a vigorous unrelenting anti-lynching crusader, and a co-founder of the NAACP. If you are less familiar with Wells, she was an African-American woman who, taking her life into her own hands during a time of too-easy violence, wrote powerfully way before the advent of social media, memes and viral policy statements made in 140 characters.
Here are just two of Ida B. Well’s statements about and against the scourge of lynching:
One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a a trap.
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
On September 13th, the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, a landmark of DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, will host a special presentation of scenes from DC-area playwright Michon Boston’s play, Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells.
Directed by the DC area’s Michi Jones, the staged reading of Boston’s Iola’s Letter is based on events that changed Ida B. Wells forever. As co-owner of the Memphis, Tennessee newspaper, The Free Speech [and Headlight], she became a nationally-recognized, staunch, out-spoken, anti-lynching activist.
An earlier version of this play has been published in the anthology Strange Fruit: Plays On Lynching By American Women, edited by Kathy A. Perkins and Judith L. Stephens (Indiana University Press). With that title, I would be remiss in not providing a link to the Billie Holiday’s iconic, moving performance of the song “Strange Fruit.”
The 70-minute, book-in-hand, staged reading will feature a dozen paid actors. Immediately after the reading, there will be a discussion with the playwright and special guests about the life and times of Ida B. Wells – connecting those times with the current state of investigative reporting and social justice journalism in a “post-truth” era. The invited guests will include Jonetta Rose Barras, who writes regularly for Washington City Paper, The Washington Post and other publications, and Dan E. Moldea, an independent crime and investigative reporter.
In an interview, playwright Boston spoke about the anti-lynching work of Wells that began in the 1890’s and lasted until her death in 1931. “The Ida B. Wells story remains as relevant as ever. It is expected to resonate even if the facts of the story are from a time more than a century ago,” noted Boston. “The audience will become like a fly on the wall as they take in how Wells took up the fight against racial injustice.”
Boston was clear that the stakes were very high for Wells. She lived in times of violence. “The play is not to make the audience comfortable; it is a difficult story to tell, but needs to be told.”
Vividly illustrating Wells to me, Boston used this New Testament passage from Matthew 10:34, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Boston then added, “In my play, Ida’s sword can cause damage – will it get the justice she wants? Will the truth enlighten her enemies? That’s a risk she’s willing to take. But she is also putting many others at risk. Call it tunnel vision (for the character). Nevertheless she stays on course.” What Wells did was to persist and resist.
Asked to provide some dialogue from Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells, Boston provided several formidable passages:
- No tongue can be tempered when it speaks against injustice.
- It is with no pleasure to dip my hands in the corruption here exposed.
- A fearlessly edited press is one of the crying necessities of the hour.
These quotes from the Boston play lead to these from the real-life Ida B. Wells:
- If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service.
- Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob.
Interviews with DC-area actor William Powell added to the powerful message of Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells. Powell portrays Mr. Fleming, the co-owner of The Free Speech [and Headlight]. Fleming is a real person who was also resolute, though less fiery and headstrong than Wells, in his anti-lynching work with the newspaper.
Inviting theater-goers to the staged reading, Powell said the “reading is for anyone interested in the human experience and how people can face down evil and prejudice. Iola’s Letter has messages for everyone.” And under the direction of Michi Jones, the actors in the staged reading “will be inhabiting their roles, giving meaning to each line of dialogue.”
The times are right for the commanding message of Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells. A message that is as critical to hear today as it was a century ago. It is about a woman who resisted and persisted. And beyond the message of the play’s staged reading about Ida B. Wells, patrons can know that the $12 ticket price includes a donation to the Gwen Ifill Fund for Journalism Excellence.
Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells, plays Wednesday, September at 7 pm at The Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital – 921 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, in Washington, DC. For information call 202-549-4172 or visit them online.