The People’s Light Theater follows in Bayard Rustin’s footsteps

Washington took the crew to the home of one of Rustin’s teachers, Mariah Brock, who was an advocate of diction. Washington believes that Rustin’s distinctive way of speaking, which often had a formal quality akin to upper-class British mannerism, owed Brock a debt.

The actor who plays Rustin, Reggie White, took the opportunity to walk alongside Washington to ask her if she had met Rustin in person. Rustin died in 1987 at the age of 75.

Writer/director Steve H. Broadnax III, local historian Penny Washington and actor Reggie White take a tour of black history in West Chester to announce the new play Bayard Rustin Inside Ashland.

“People comment on his speaking voice, but what I remember most when he spoke to you – I felt like I really had been seen,” Washington said.

“What was it about the way he spoke to you that made you feel that?” asked Weiss.

“Because he would look you straight in the eye,” she said.

At the time of this tour, approximately three weeks prior to the premiere of Ashland, Steve H. Broadnax III had already written the script and was in full swing directing the play. He said getting everyone involved in the play out of the rehearsal room and onto the streets with Washington was invaluable.

“Today we go to rehearsal from that tour and I know the things they’re learning now will go into the script,” Broadnax said. “For example, today we learned about Rustin’s teacher and his speech. I mean, you don’t find that in a book. Only Miss Penny has that.”

This isn’t the first time Washington has trained a cast and crew from People’s Light. A 2019 play “Mud Row” by Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau was based on the story of West Chester’s East End, where black residents have historically worked together to preserve their neighborhoods for more than a century, and more recently attempted to defeating them away from its gentrification.

People’s Light artistic director Zak Berkman said the company has formed partnerships with neighborhood groups to create new plays based on people and events in the community.

“Most pieces are developed in their own vacuum. They exist in a rehearsal room,” he said. “What a chance for people to really feel the connectedness of what they do with the environment around them, with the neighborhoods and communities around them. That gives the piece a completely different humanity. I think four hours in West Chester is worth four weeks in a rehearsal space.”

Washington led the cast and crew of People’s Light to the 200 block of East Market Street, which in Rustin’s day had been a primarily black commercial corridor. He and his fellow activists – whom he called “angelic troublemakers” – met at the Royal Palace Luncheonette to discuss their next steps.

One of those moves was to protest the segregation of the nearby Warner Theater, where black guests were forced to sit on the balcony. This action would lead to Rustin’s first arrest.

The group also gathered at the West Chester Community Building on East Gay Street, the former site of the Gay Street School, a segregated black school where Rustin was educated. Washington made sure everyone heard his teachers’ names clearly: Mariah Brock, Sarah Maxfield, Katherine Walton, Warren Burton, Joseph Fugett, and his wife, Hazel Fugett.

“Black teachers prepared him with knowledge and wisdom. There’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom: knowledge is fact, but wisdom would tell you what to do with it,” she said as the People’s Light crew sent out a cheer. “It was the black teachers who gave him that understanding.”

Washington has a photo of Rustin as a very young boy standing in front of the Gay Street School with his classmates and teachers. For Washington, it’s a personal family photo.

“I have family members in this picture but they have all died now,” she said. “This image shows Bayard Rustin embraced, enveloped, immersed in black love and community.”

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