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THEATER New musical spotlights civil-rights activist Bayard Rustin
by Catey Sullivan
2018-02-14

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Look at Bayard Rustin's career as a civil-rights leader and one question becomes glaringly apparent: Why isn't he a household name alongside Rosa Parks and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? His accomplishments paved the way for both lions of the civil-rights movement:

—In 1942, Rustin refused to move to the back of a Louisville bus bound for Nashville. More than a decade before Parks became the face of the seminal 1955 bus boycott, Rustin was arrested, beaten bloody and eventually sent to work on a chain gang for his refusal to give up his seat.

—In 1947, Rustin organized a Freedom Ride, journeying with 16 men through North Carolina to challenge state segregation laws. It wasn't until 14 years later that James Farmer organized what became widely recognized as first official Freedom Ride.

—In 1963, Rustin was the chief organizer for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, working hand-in-glove with leaders including King and Stokely Carmichael.

—Rustin also helped create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, advised King on non-violent tactics and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

In all, it's a track record that leaves you wondering why Rustin has faded from history compared to his better known peers.

The answer, according to playwright and historian McKinley Johnson, is clear. Rustin was gay. His arrests for "perversion"—along with his refusal to apologize for loving men—made many Civil Rights leaders view him as a liability. While King and others became the public icons of the movement, Rustin was moved to the back, his influential essays published under a pseudonym, his involvement downplayed and sometimes outright denied by those with him in the forefront.

With his new musical Eye of the Storm, Johnson puts a spotlight on Rustin.

"People used the fact that he was gay against him," said Johnson. "The musical is about how and why he was pushed aside."

Running through March 11 at the eta Creative Arts Foundation in the Grand Crossing neighborhood, Eye of the Storm has been in development there for more than two years, said eta Producing Artistic Director Kemati J. Porter. "One of the things I've keep thinking about with this piece is who decides who gets to be a hero, and how we define a hero. Our audiences expect stories that dig into these kinds of questions, especially as they pertain to African-Americans," Porter said.

In Eye of the Storm, Johnson envisions a 1960 meeting during which movement leaders try to force Rustin to step away from a planned march on Washington. Johnson's dialogue is pure fiction, but it is was inspired by real events.

In 1963, the FBI—spurred on by then-Senator Strom Thurmond—got its hands on a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King bathing. In the photo, Rustin stands nearby, and King is talking to him. The FBI threatened to release the photo and "out" King and Rustin as romantic partners. In light of the FBI threat, NAACP President Roy Wilkins reportedly demanded that Rustin be removed from any position of visible leadership within the organization. Rustin's arrest for "perversion" in 1953 ( he was caught in a car with two other men ) exacerbated the situation.

It wasn't just Rustin's sexuality that bothered people. "He was really radical for his time," said Johnson. "Early on, he believed in sit-ins. He believed in protesting. That kind of confrontational, in-your-face action wasn't something people were used to. It was dangerous. "

Rustin's religion also contributed toward rendering him comparatively unseen amid his peers.

"He was a Quaker," said Johnson, "As a Quaker, he didn't believe in having a spotlight on what he did. For Rustin, it was about what God was doing through him, rather than what he was doing himself."

Johnson was drawn to Rustin's story in part by the activist's religious beliefs and how they fueled his actions.

"Much of my work has dealt with faith—with people battling to accomplish what they believe God has placed in their hearts. Rustin had a deep mission. It didn't matter what circumstances were placed against him—he believed that God had given him a path and he was going to follow it. "

With co-composer Marshall Titus, Johnson is theatricalizing that path with a score influenced by soul, R&B, jazz, gospel and Stephen Sondheim. And while Eye of the Storm is set over half a century ago, it resonates today, Johnson said.

"The relevance comes out in the protests," Johnson said. "You look at these men planning protests so long ago, and you realize that protest is what moves things forward, as much now as back then.

"Activists can be flawed, obviously," he added. "But in this piece, they were trying to do the right thing. And they eventually came together and helped make something big happen."

Eye of the Storm: The Bayard Rustin Story runs through March 11 at eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Shore Ave. There will be a panel discussion of race, civil rights and gay rights prior to the Feb. 10 performance. For more information, go to Etacreativearts.org or call 773-752-3955.


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