Stage: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Muffled ‘Voice’

Stage West reduces the life of Barbara Jordan to a slide show.


It’s not necessary to emphasize the uber-relevancy of issues in Kristine Thatcher’s bio-play Voice of Good Hope: constitutional interpretation, the salvation (or destruction) of national unity, the demands presented by steely Southern conservatives. You may wonder if you’ve stepped into a cable tv news studio when you wander into the current, talky Stage West production. After you shake off that startled feeling, you remember that this is indeed a play rooted in the recent past, specifically, the life of Barbara Jordan, first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress from the South (Texas, to be exact), tireless defender of the Constitution’s elasticity, and probably the last great orator of American politics.

Once Sunday’s performance reached the halfway point, it became painfully clear that coincidental synchronicity cannot carry a show. The script for Voice of Good Hope is sloppy and rigged, evincing a superficiality about a magnetic politician that assumes the audience’s reverence will compensate for the author’s creaky dialogue and grade-school textbook biographical devices. Director Jim Covault and some top acting talent wind up in dramatic triage, infusing the best scenes with ideological fervor and letting the rest die a fitful onstage death.

N. Wilson King as Barbara Jordan wisely avoids outright mimicry of the woman’s unforgettable voice, relying instead on a wily performance of stoic weariness that works to both comic and tragic effect. Voice of Good Hope is framed by scenes of Jordan’s cruel physical decline — multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and finally pneumonia — attended worrisomely by her longtime “housemate” Nancy Earl (Judy Keith). The play hops between past and present, real and fictionalized moments, which unfortunately include a long, lethargic scene that shows Barbara as a curious child (Whitney Smith) interacting with her grandfather (Tyrone King) in Houston. As written, the scene’s nothing to brag about — you expect the young Jordan to start hacking away at a cherry tree — and as performed, it’s full of missed dialogue cues that result in our straining to hear the actors.

Two scenes almost rescue the show with their impressive examination of the intricacies of this black woman’s political conscience in a white man’s South, although even they are stilted. Both are staged as debate-style face-offs. The first imagines a heated office conversation about a real event: Bob Strauss (Matthew Stephen Tompkins), Democratic Party chairman in 1975, attempts to persuade Jordan to give character testimony on behalf of former Texas governor John Connolly, who was facing federal prosecution for bribery. Connolly was notoriously hostile to the cause of civil rights, but Strauss implores Jordan to help on principle — neither believes Connolly took the bribe. In the next scene, the playwright creates a wholly fictional person and dilemma: Julie Dunn (Eleanor T. Threatt), a former law student of Jordan’s running in an unnamed Democratic primary, wants her mentor’s public support in refuting some sincere but inflammatory racial comments Dunn made to a reporter about the justice system. I won’t disclose which overture Jordan accepts and which she rejects, but suffice to say her reasoning is bandied about in thoughtful detail. These three actors provided the production’s only convincing fusion of the personal and political.

Speaking of the personal, Voice of Good Hope declines available dramatic fuel that is sorely needed. It’s obvious why Barbara Jordan and Nancy Earl never publicly revealed what their close friends knew: They were romantic and domestic partners. Jordan certainly wouldn’t have had a political legacy to write about had she “outed” herself in Texas during the ’70s. But playwright Thatcher, whose intentions were presumably to recreate and understand Jordan, should not labor under the same restrictions. Few would expect a production of Barbara and Nancy: An Erotic Romp, but when a show about a woman so dedicated to eloquent truth coyly stops after referring to her significant other as a “housemate,” something’s amiss. The fact that Judy Keith as Earl gets so much stage time, fretting and bickering with her partner over medical decisions, makes the dodge more glaring. Simply acknowledging Jordan’s dual lives would make the theatrical soil even richer. How did attitudes among her black constituency and her white male peers — especially considering that Nancy Earl was a white woman — figure in the line she drew between her public and private lives?

Voice of Good Hope cries out for more character complexity. The show feels like a civic duty rather than a compelling portrait of an ambitious woman battling uphill through elective politics and savage disease. A public figure as multi-layered, authoritative, and beloved as Barbara Jordan deserves something more than a slide-show tribute when her story hits the stage. N. Wilson King fuses Jordan’s impatience and integrity into a lively whole, but unfortunately the playwright sees to it that Voice of Good Hope is muffled before she opens her mouth.

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