At the heart of Conversation With a Kleagle is a terrifying journey. It's not the physical journey that the lead character, John Watson, makes in Rudy Gray's new play, but rather the emotional and psychological one that leads him into the mind and emotions of a major figure of the Ku Klux Klan. Half the journey is exhilarating, half is trying, but all of it's worthwhile.
That's because the story Gray has conceived, set in the rural south of the 1920s and based on the life of journalist and equality crusader Walter White, is one that not only examines the very nature of hatred, but also of the very people who breed it. Gray's vision of the members of the Klan is one of often confused, conflicted, and most often well-meaning people who wanted the best for their cities and states, but embraced the more destructive solutions to achieve those ends.
This is most strikingly visible in the show's first scene, in which John (Mark A. Daly) confronts the Kleagle (Steve Aronson), a Klan recruiter, named Randall Monahan. Yet, despite the inherent racism and often violent attitudes lingering just beneath the surface, Monahan is lusty, humorous, and often concerned about his community and the people in it. As John himself is actually a black man, with light enough skin to "pass," this scene is often harrowing, John's discomfort (if not yet his secret) wholly evident. As the interaction between the two continues, it becomes obvious that, in Conversation with a Kleagle, traditional concepts of black and white do not apply.
John narrowly escapes the discovery of his secret with the help of the shrewd shoe-shiner Tookie (Todd Davis, giving a fine, bold performance), and returns to Chicago where his story about Monahan earns him critical and political acclaim. But when Tookie, left behind to deal with the aftermath of John's escape, indirectly impels John to return to the lion's den, the show loses its edge, misplaces its cleverness, and becomes the all-too familiar study in the hatred (and stupidity) of the pro-lynching South the first act goes to tremendous lengths to avoid.
Director Stacy Waring's work is somewhat uneven, highlighting the characters' secrets and subtextual emotions beautifully in the most direct scenes, but finding fewer creative solutions in a first-act flashback (in which Gray examines why John chooses to "pass" for a white man) and a highly confrontational scene during John's second act return to the south. Christophe Pierre's set design is minimal, but his lights help emphasize the shadows and ambiguities of not only Waring's staging at its best, but Gray's writing throughout.
Daly's performance is intense and often mannered, if occasionally strained, while Aronson's human monster is intriguingly shaded. Charley Gartman and Willie Ann Gissendanner, portraying young John and his mother in the flashback, both give smart, emotional performances. Antonio D. Charity, as John's editor, provides a thoughtful blending of his personal and professional relationship with John. The show's only one-dimensional performance comes from Doug Stone, portraying an almost token dumb Southerner, whose attitude between acceptance and intolerance seems to shift on a dime.
It's not wholly Stone's fault - he just has less to work with; representing an entire population of people who let others make their decisions for them can't be easy. Gray's other creations, John and Randall especially, appear more effortless, and define the two mindsets at the center of Conversation with a Kleagle - and the post-Reconstruction South - as clearly as any author, or audience, has the right to hope.
WorkShop Theater Company