Review: New Play Action Brings St. Louis History to Life

Playwright Colin McLaughlin's work tells an important, often unmentioned St. Louis story

Jan 16, 2023 at 11:57 am
click to enlarge Members of the coalition Action organized in the early 1970s to get better jobs and working conditions for Black St. Louisans. The group's early history is the subject of a new play.
Members of the coalition Action organized in the early 1970s to get better jobs and working conditions for Black St. Louisans. The group's early history is the subject of a new play.

The period just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into the early 1970s was one of change. Fear and conflict spread throughout the United States, including in St. Louis, where activist Percy Green II founded ACTION, a disruptive, non-violent coalition seeking equal hiring and financial opportunities for Black Americans.

The group is the subject of Action, a new play from playwright Colin McLaughlin, whose researched and authentic script takes the audience through the first half of the organization’s history. The significantly dense story begins with a retelling of Green and another activist scaling the still-under-construction Arch in 1964 with signs demanding jobs. The story reaches its zenith with the December 1972 unveiling of the Veiled Prophet during the white, upper-class Veiled Prophet Society's by-invitation-only annual ball. The closing scenes feature the immediate aftermath.

The unmasking was a big deal at the time. In addition to bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Klan’s grand wizard, albeit with more embroidery and a fancier face mask, the Veiled Prophet epitomized the wealth, status and success of St. Louis’ ruling white class. The show details how hard the activists worked to pull off the unveiling, with the story of Jane Sauer and Gena Scott; the two young white women activists who were able to infiltrate the ball and, in a wildly flamboyant and attention getting move, unmask the prophet and reveal his secret identity.

Quickly, however, the story and event were brushed under the rug, barely garnering any press mention. That result could have been soul-crushing, yet Green, as penned by McLaughlin and interpreted by director Kathryn Bentley, finds joy and a cause for celebration and continued work, in the aftermath.

We are introduced to and learn the stories of many of Green’s fellow activists, including the Black veiled prophet Judge Johnson and the Queen of Human Justice, Lena Lee. Other activists include the progressive Jackie Bell and volunteer lawyer Francis Sheridan.

The play was in part based on interviews and conversations with the history-makers, although some of the characters are amalgamations. Green, Sauer, and Scott are based on the real activists whom the performers portray. The play opens with a well-choreographed exposition that includes a mix of fact-based and paraphrased events. Equipped with a backstory and history, the fully committed and realistically rooted cast ensures the play is thoroughly engrossing. The performances of Robert Crenshaw as Green, Rae Davis and Joshua Mayfield as Lee and Johnson, Kayla Bush as Bell, Ryan Lawson-Maeske as Sheridan, and Lize Lewy and Summer Baer as Sauer and Scott, are engaging and genuinely inspiring. And the pacing and intensity may keep you on the edge of your seat, just as I was.

The newly formed Action Art Collaborative company’s mission of combining art with social justice themes and actions is a positive and welcome addition to our varied theater community. The company is developing a film version of the show to be shared with young people in the region. I also hope the play is remounted on stage, in St. Louis and elsewhere, so more audiences can learn this important history.

While Action Art Collaborative's Action has closed, you can follow the group on its website to find out when its next show will be.

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