AmaZing Theatre Company is presenting an original movie/play hybrid that they have dubbed a stage flick: Torn, by local playwright John Becker. The show is based on the momentous event in 1901 when Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, a former slave, to dine at the White House. Never before had a Black man been entertained as an equal.
Becker says of the event: “It sent shock waves across the nation. In many ways, we are still torn.” He also states the sad truth that the scandal created by the dinner is still relevant today: “The protests we see today, and the handling of them, are proof of that.”
The stage flick begins after the assination of President McKinley, which resulted in VP Teddy Roosevelt (Scott Abernethy) agreeing to take the oath to be the 26th President of the United States, in a somber scene with Elihu Root (Nick Duckworth), who served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of State.
After being in office only a month, Roosevelt invites his adviser Booker T. Washington (Gerrad Taylor) for dinner, to discuss matters of the South and plans for facilitating the education of the Black community. We first hear of the event in a heartwarming scene, with Taylor as a calm and sensible Washington discussing the historical moment with his wife, Margaret Murray Washington played by Debora Crabbe. Crabbe is loving, expressive, and bursting with pride and hope. Taylor and Crabbe create a lovely complementary contrast in their demeanors that feels genuine, and the strength of their relationship is unquestionable.
This strong bond helps drive home the immense pressure that the backlash from the dinner causes for their family. Washington is hounded by reporters and threats are made on his life. In an argument with his wife, Washington says, “First Black man to dine at the White House. Half of white American wants to lynch me. Half of Black America calls me an Uncle Tom. And I come home to this.” But Crabbe bites back with wit and the two are again on the same path.
Roosevelt deals with his own repercussions, with failing support and an opposition that believes the rights of Black people should never impede the happiness of white men. Duckworth as Root acts as a sounding board, confidant, and advisor to Roosevelt through the thick of it all. Roosevelt and Root’s disappointment in the hateful reaction to an action so full of promise and progress is palpable in their scenes. They are heartbroken for America. And so are we.
Vince Eisenson plays the repugnant Ben Tillman, whose speeches drip with racist ideas and white privilege. I imagine Tillman to be a difficult character to dive into, but Eisenson does an excellent job of capturing the impassioned bigot and emphasizing the stark differences in ideals, which echo still today.
Tillman’s accusations of the “Blacks bringing crime and being rapists” eerily parallel the sentiments of former President Trump when speaking about immigrants, one of many contemporary relevancies the author alludes to. Similarly, Tillman later comments, “Now I am not actively supporting lynching, but there are some very fine people on all sides of this.”
Another dynamic in the show is the animosity and debate between W.E.B. Du Bois (Muhammad “Mo” Okedeyi) and Washington over tactics toward equality. Their famously contentious relationship evokes the differences between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Washington believed that education of the Black community was the best route to equal rights. Du Bois felt that Washington’s acceptance of the dinner invitation to the White House was a foolish mistake that sent the wrong message: being complicit where he should instead use force and make demands. Though constantly at odds in opinions, the two ultimately work to the same end and maintain a level of respect and appreciation.
Washington and Roosevelt’s relationship is the main focus of Torn. Abernethy and Taylor play their scenes with an obvious mutual respect and familiarity. There’s an honesty to their interactions that highlights the gravity of the decisions they make and the careful attention with which they make them.
As is said repeatedly in the stage flick, the issue of race is a powder keg. And unfortunately the best and noblest intentions of Roosevelt set it off, resulting in Roosevelt being faced with an impossible decision that could have an impact on race relations for decades.
Torn is a thought-provoking piece that offers a history lesson in Black excellence, the constant work that so many brilliant minds have been doing for years to rid our country of systemic racism, and the work that still needs to be done. As the saying goes, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. So study up and keep moving forward.
Playwright Becker also directed and filmed the project, which was originally intended to be a stage production but the pandemic put an end to that. After contemplating a virtual performance, Executive Director Alice Thomas, Artistic Director Percy Thomas, and Becker had a conversation “during which they lamented the loss of actors reacting live to one another” and Becker “had the idea of filming live. Since each scene has no more than three actors at a time,” he said, “the play could be shot in a responsible manner. Through clever use of historical photography from the days of Booker T. Washington and green screening, it could create a completely unique theatrical experience.”
And that it did. AmaZing Theatre Company has created a great piece of entertainment that checks all the boxes for intellectual, informative, and inspiring works.
Running Time: About 60 minutes with no intermission.
AmaZing Theatre Company’s production of Torn airs as a virtual event at 7 pm ET Saturdays and Sundays February 13–14, 20–21, and 27–28, 2021. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling AmaZing Theatre Company’s box office at (301) 503-3403.
Scott Abernethy (Teddy Roosevelt), Gerrad Taylor (Booker T. Washington), Debora Crabbe (Margaret Murray Washington), Nick Duckworth (Elihu Root), Vince Eisenson (Ben Tillman), Muhammad “Mo” Okedeyi (W.E.B. Du Bois)
Alice Thomas (Executive Director), Percy Thomas (Artistic Director), John Becker (Playwright/Director), Brad Klotz (Boom Operator), Jennifer Jones-Hill (Stage Manager)