Monday, March 18, 2024

"A Unique Assignment" at History Theatre

Yesterday was a special day at History Theatre. Not only did I learn about an important chapter in American history with which I was previously not very familiar, told in a compelling, well-constructed, beautifully designed and acted play, but the people who lived that history were actually there! That's one of the great things about History Theatre - they make history relevant, tangible, and real in addition to entertaining. A Unique Assignment was written by one of my favorite local playwrights, Harrison David Rivers, based on two auto-biographies: Three Years in Mississippi by James Meredith, the first Black student at the University of Mississippi, for which President Kennedy sent in troops to protect him and keep the peace, and James Meredith and the Ole Miss Riot by Henry Gallagher, a young soldier from Minnesota who was put in charge of Meredith's security detail. This may sound like a dry history lesson, but in the hands of this talented playwright, cast, and creative team, it is anything but. It's an inspiring story that's clearly and succinctly told with much humanity, emotion, and even humor. The message of standing up for equality and justice and against bigotry, hatred, and ignorance is beautifully delivered, and tragically still incredibly relevant in 2024. For these reasons and more, I highly recommend seeing A Unique Assignment at History Theatre in downtown St. Paul before it closes April 7.

the two Hanks: Pearce Bunting and Kevin Fanshaw
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
At the post-show discussion on the day I attended, Harrison David Rivers modestly said that he didn't have to start from scratch to write this play, and had a lot of great material to work with. But I would argue that having to adapt two full-length books into one less than two-hour play might make the task even more difficult. How do you parse all of that information, and two different perspectives, into one cohesive narrative? I don't know how, but he's done it. The play begins with Henry (aka Hank) narrating the story as a 73-year-old, trading off the narration with his 23-year-old self living the story, acting out the scenes described. He's stationed at an army base in New Jersey in the fall of 1962, and suddenly finds himself on the way to Oxford Mississippi without a map (literally and figuratively), in charge of a unit whose only goal is to keep James safe so that he can attend classes and study like any other student. Once we make it to Mississippi, James takes over the narration, and we see things from his point of view, in his noble mission to end segregation and make life better not just for himself but for all African Americans. From that point on we seamlessly switch back and forth between the two perspectives, until we get to the successful end of this story - the racist protests and threats have died down, James is safe in his role of student at Ole Miss, and Hank and his unit leave and move on to their next assignment - and the two men reflect on this chapter in their life with the wisdom of age.

young Hank (Kevin Fanshaw) meets James (James A. Williams)
while the older Hank (Pearce Bunting) looks on (photo by Rick Spaulding)
This play is so well constructed, the narrative flowing smoothly from one episode to the next, with each man's personal reflections and motivations seamlessly woven in. The two versions of Hank allow us to see the inner thoughts through the older Hank, as the younger Hank lives it and keeps his cool (or tries to). The two actors embodying Hank are so great in bringing him to life, and letting us see his humanity as he's doing his duty as a soldier. I absolutely believe in a world in which Kevin Fanshaw grows up to be Pearce Bunting, as they portray two versions of the same character. While this play could easily have a cast of six or eight actors, with the number of characters portrayed, there are only four, with James A. Williams and Kevin Brown, Jr. playing all of the other characters (with Pearce occasionally stepping into a role). As an audience member pointed out in the talkback, it's an interesting exercise when Black actors play characters of varying races, including White characters, making us think about and question our biases, which is always a good thing. James A. Williams also portrays James Meredith, and the combination of this real Civil Rights leader's words, as filtered through Harrison David Rivers and spoken by J Dub (as he's affectionately known) is tremendously affecting and inspirational.

Hank (Kevin Fanshaw) with fellow soldiers (Kevin Brown, Jr.
and James A. Williams, photo by Rick Spaulding)
History Theatre's Artistic Director Richard D. Thompson directs this fantastic script with a deft hand, the transitions from scene to scene, from memory to present, clear and smooth. The story moves with great momentum and suspense, moments of fear and drama well mixed with occasional humor (the running joke about needing a map, the inexperienced smokers). All elements of design aid in the storytelling. The modern and linear steel gray set with just a few boxes used as furniture really make it feel like the memory play that it is, the story playing out on an almost bare canvas. The back wall of the theater is hung with long narrow gray panels, used for occasional projections. Lighting changes help to move us from character to character, setting to setting. The sound design builds the tension, but is perhaps most effective in the silence that accompanies most of James' monologues (because when J Dub speaks, that's all the music you need). The costume design also helps in the storytelling; the two Hanks pretty stable in their respective uniforms of comfy cardigan and army greens, while the two ensemble members don different jackets and uniform pieces to portray the different characters, James in his sharply tailored suit. (Scenic design by Ursula K Bowden, video design by Kathy Maxwell, lighting design by Kurt Jung, sound design by Katharine Horowitz, and costume design by Kirby Moore.)

I was lucky enough to attend on a day when there was a post-show discussion with not only the director, playwright, and cast of the play, but also Henry Gallagher (a graduate of my alma mater CSB/SJU) and the wife of James Meredith (at 90, he was unable to travel from his beloved state of Mississippi). It was so incredible to be in the same room with these history makers after just hearing their inspirational story. It's now more than 60 years after the events of this play took place, and sadly some people still seem to be living back there, or worse yet, want us to return to those terrifying days. But this play gives me hope that if individuals continue to do the right thing, to stand up for their own rights and those of others, we'll make it through. This story shows us that social change is hard, and doesn't come easily, but it is possible and maybe even inevitable.