By Barbara Smith – Contributing Writer
He may be the greatest political strategist you’ve never heard of. But with the world premiere of “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin,” opening September 8 at the La Jolla Playhouse, playwright Michael Benjamin Washington is certain to correct that omission. Developed as a reading, then as a workshop during the La Jolla Playhouse’s 2014 DNA New Work Series, “Blueprints to Freedom” chronicles the role that the brilliant civil rights activist Bayard Rustin played in the momentous 1963 March on Washington. The play turns a sensitive and provocative lens on the personal aspects of the racial/political climate of 1960’s America and Rustin’s own internal struggles as he was exiled from the movement and his journey toward professional and spiritual redemption. Recently, Washington took time from a busy rehearsal schedule to share some thoughts on his creative journey as playwright and actor in this landmark production. Termed by some a “lost prophet,” Washington sees Rustin more as Greek figure, tragically flawed yet heroic, “one who could overcome great obstacles by mortal man and be brave enough to have great bouts with God.” The artist’s passion for the project radiates throughout his conversation. “I found that Bayard Rustin was a man who wanted to see America change and instead of just talking about it, he did it,” he says. “He somehow managed to craft and organize and execute what is still termed as America’s finest hour. And I find that to be fascinating, what we were able to do when we all stood together.” Despite Rustin’s pivotal role in the historic March on Washington and considerable contributions to the nonviolent resistance movement in the United States, the activist’s achievements are largely unknown, eclipsed by polemics. Rustin was an openly gay man, a minority within a minority. The politics of that era placed him in the middle of a firestorm of controversy within and outside the black community. Yet it was Rustin who helped to initiate a 1947 Freedom Ride to challenge with civil disobedience racial segregation on interstate busing. And it was Rustin who helped to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to strengthen Dr. King’s leadership. Indeed, Washington discovered in the course of his research that his own paternal grandfather, an Army officer of color in the 1940’s, was able to vote in the south because of Rustin’s strategic role in getting President Franklin Roosevelt to pass the Fair Employment Act, which banned discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies. The seed for Washington’s project was planted several years ago by friend and noted fellow playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays’ trilogy), who told him, “’You need to explore Bayard Rustin. When you read about him, you’ll understand.’” After seeing the documentary “Brother Outsider,” and reading “I Must Resist,” a collection of Rustin’s letters, Washington was deeply affected by the poetic arc of Rustin’s life The “Blueprints” script delves into the complexities in Rustin’s emotions and motivations. “The level of conversations I tried to explore in the play go everywhere from religion to politics to being men to being scared…I was struck by the musicality that I felt in his story, the ups and downs, the roller coaster. It felt like an ode or a beautiful sonata.” The play reflects that lyricism, both in its structure and its content, a testament to Washington’s gift as a writer and a storyteller. When asked about the challenge of being both an actor in the play (Washington reprises his role from the DNA Workshop as the charismatic Rustin) and also the playwright, Washington responds, “I love the dynamic. I’ve been an actor for a long time and I know the difference between a passion project and a cool gig. Bayard Rustin can’t be a cool gig for an actor. You have to give over to it. I’ve had a lot of fun letting him literally take over my spirit. That comes through the writing and then in performance.” Washington is equally thrilled with director Lucie Tiberghien (“Blood and Tears”) and the extraordinary performers who round out the cast. “Mandi Masden as Miriam Caldwell is phenomenal,” he says, adding “Ro Boddie captured Martin Luther King, Jr.’s spirit from the time he walked into his audition; and Jonathan Peck plays A. Philip Randolph with great authority and regal bearing. I’m lucky to have strong actors who are available and ready and wanting to tell the story.” Washington’s career has been on an upward spiral since high school when he was honored as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts, performing at the Kennedy Center. From there he attended NYU where, he says with wry humor, he had aspirations of becoming the black Marlon Brando. The aspiring thespian realized early on, however, that as an actor of color, opportunities would not come his way without a full arsenal of training. Adding musical theatre and writing courses to his repertoire opened doors to him and placed him in an ascending trajectory of Broadway performances (“Mamma Mia” and “La Cage Aux Folles”), film and TV (“Love and Other Drugs,” “ Gnome,” “30 Rock,”) and original one-man shows, many exploring great themes of redemption and forgiveness, all of which led to “Blueprints.” With hard work and commitment also came big breaks and mentors. His longtime association with Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad led to deep conversations about the humanity inside the play and about grace and redemption, so that when he asked the iconic performer if she would direct the DNA Workshop last year, she was all in. “Phylicia Rashad is one of the great actresses of her generation, so to have her prepare me for this role was like having my own private acting coach, and one who happens to be world renowned.” Now, some 50 years after the famous March, Washington sees the journey coming full circle. Marking its significance, in November 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Quoting Dr. King, Washington offers, “Now is the time for Bayard Rustin’s name to be spoken and now is the time for the first black president to stand up and say this is a great American hero and his name should be called from the White House. “ Quoting Dr. King, Washington adds, “’The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ I believe that justice does come in time if you are obedient and steadfast,” although, he continues, “it is not usually on our time but on God’s clock.” Washington postulates conversations that Rustin and Dr. King might have today. “I think they would talk about and marvel that not only do we have an African American president who was elected twice, but that a new movement is following in the footsteps of the movement they created based on Gandhi…movements from Occupy Wall Street to gay civil rights to what will probably move into the transgender and gender fluidity movement. Humanity continues to get activated throughout the generations because of the work that those two men in particular brought to the forefront in America. “ “Since its electric first reading on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we’ve been deeply committed to Michael Benjamin Washington’s provocative new piece,” says La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley. “With victories and setbacks to the cause of equality in the news every day, the ideas and themes of “Blueprints to Freedom” call out urgently to us. We’re proud to welcome this dynamic and talented cast and creative team to illuminate Bayard Rustin’s quest for identity and redemption. “Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin” runs from September 8 – October 4. For ticket information, visit www.lajollaplayhouse.org.