Theater Review: Blacks and whites on different planets?By Jim LoweJim Lowe / Staff Photo
Bassist William Parker and Edgar Davis perform David Budbill’s new play, “Different Planet,” in Greensboro.
If you think a young African-American can be angry about America’s ongoing racial injustice, try a well-educated successful black college professor.
“Different Planet,” Wolcott poet and playwright David Budbill’s newest play, confronts just that issue with a powerful authenticity: Are black and white Americans on different planets?
Somewhat truncated, Budbill’s latest effort was presented in a deeply moving staged reading by actor Edgar Davis and bassist William Parker on Thursday under a tent on the Greensboro Green, part of the first Greensboro Writers’ Forum.
“The Life and Times of Edward T. Jordan: Chemist, Educator, Militant Activist, Irritant, Idealist, Disagreeable Person,” the play’s subtitle, pretty much tells it all, but it misses Jordan’s foremost quality: integrity.
Jordan is a composite character, based on an actual acquaintance of Budbill’s in the Northeast Kingdom, but fleshed out with bits and pieces from the playwright’s experience. Like the characters in Budbill’s most famous play, “Judevine,” the feel is authentic.
Jordan grew up poor in Philadelphia, but with the influence of educated relatives, he worked toward and earned a college education. His understanding of his place in the world was cemented by his World War II army experience. Although a science expert, he found himself segregated, looked down upon and otherwise discriminated against.
Jordan’s first major job was as a chemist for DuPont, where he excelled. But he found himself a lone black man in a white world and after a dozen years, left to join academia.
He became the only black professor at the fictitious Dunbar University, an institution of higher learning aimed at the African-American population.
Again Jordan was fighting an uphill battle, at least as far as he was concerned. He had learned throughout his life that in order to be accepted in America, an African-American had to be better than his white counterpart. His demanding — realistic, he would say — approach led to troubles and his eventual firing by the school.
Budbill’s Jordan is a bit on the self-centered side. Indeed, he doesn’t mention having a wife until near death. And he isn’t always compassionate.
His statement, “I am harsh, I am not nice, I am merciless,” is almost true. But he applies his extreme standards to himself before anyone else.
Budbill’s tale takes Jordan through his fight with cancer. And even in his death Jordan had to have it his way. Finally, he sums it up, “I’ve been a lucky guy.”
Davis, a veteran professional actor living in Hardwick, became Edward T. Jordan. He effectively reflected the man’s anger as well as his pride with authority and authenticity.
“Different Planet” would be a monologue without its musical score provided by Parker, a renowned New York jazz bassist and frequent Budbill collaborator. Parker provided everything from atmospheric music to accents, to conversation through his bass and other instruments.
According to Parker, he begins with a set score upon which he improvises. The music is essentially a character in the play.
Davis and Parker collaborated in truly potent storytelling.
According to Budbill, this performance of “Different Planet” was cut from the original 90 minutes to about an hour for this occasion. It’s typical Budbill storytelling in that the characters, full of defects, are convincing, compelling and sympathetic. Perhaps Budbill got carried away with the jazz references, but they were fun.
Budbill is one of Vermont’s best and best-known poets. Often his plays emanate from his poetry, as in the case of “Judevine.” But “Different Planet” began with interviews with a neighbor.
“Different Planet” is a compelling piece of theater combining an understanding of America’s deep racism and Budbill’s deep passion for humanity. Hopefully, it will be presented in its entirety in the near future.
Greensboro Arts Alliance
For information about the Greensboro Arts Alliance and Residency, call 802-533-7487, or go online to www.greensboroartsalliance.com. For information about David Budbill, go online to www.davidbudbill.com.MORE IN Central Vermont
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