Black Star: A Play About Henrietta Vinton Davis
- 2019 Reading, NYC, produced by Sheryl Lee Ralph
- 2017, The Chekhov Club of the Barn Arts Collective, Trenton, ME (reading)
In Black Star, the greatest African American classical actress of the 19th Century, Henrietta Vinton Davis, wrestles with a ghost who is calling into question her dedication to Marcus Garvey and his “African Redemption” movement to raise money for an all-Black steamship line that will resettle hundreds of thousands of African Americans in Liberia. At the age of sixty, she left the stage to devote herself full-time to fundraising and international organizing for Garvey.
Henrietta Vinton Davis is backstage in Liberty Hall, Harlem, preparing to introduce Marcus Garvey at the 1924 national convention for Garvey’s legendary organization, UNIA (the Universal Negro Improvement Association). Just as she is about to leave the dressing room, she is interrupted by the intrusive presence of the ghost of Robert Poston, a former UNIA colleague.
Earlier in the year, Poston and Davis were part of a UNIA delegation to Liberia, where it became clear that Garvey’s dream of resettlement was impossible. Bitter and disillusioned, Poston succumbed to pneumonia on the return voyage, and now his ghost has now returned to haunt Davis, who is planning to lie about the situation in Liberia and continue to fundraise for the ships.
Davis, attempting to throw off this ghostly visitor, conjures various scenes from her long career in theatre where she had to face serious challenges to her success.
These flashback vignettes include racist heckling at her debut with Powhatan Beatty at the Ford Theatre in Washington, a scene of domestic violence with her husband/manager in Cincinatti, and her dilemma in opening a theatre in Chicago to compete with the racist 1893 Chicago Exposition.
In a tense, climactic scene, Poston takes Davis back to the night he died on the ship, entrusting her with his report. Davis defends herself by revealing a traumatic secret to to Poston. In her final bid to exorcise Poston’s ghost, she returns to the 1923 mail fraud trail of Garvey, where the prosecution’s star witness, a janitor at Penn Station, schools her on the true value of owning stock in the Black Star steamship line.
The play is a celebration of an African American actress whose radical choice to avoid vaudeville, minstrel shows, and plantation dramas got her effectively written out of Black theatre history. It’s also an exploration of the controversies that continue to swirl around Marcus Garvey, whose influence on leaders of the Civil Rights era cannot be overestimated. Finally, it is a tribute to the pragmatism of cherishing and propagating a radical dream, and to the activist artists for whom this is their lifework.
3 African American woman: 65, 30’s, and 16.
6 African American men: mid-20’s, 75, two mid-30’s, two 40’s.
One male, any race, 20’s.
(Several male roles can be doubled.)