Ray Sprigle's story of the Jim Crow South hits the stage

CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- In the old Colonial college town of Chestertown in rural Maryland, under a spot of light by an old metal typewriter stand, stood Ray Sprigle, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's star reporter of the 1930s and '40s.

Mr. Sprigle was reading a powerful passage from "I was a Negro in the South for 30 Days," the blockbuster series he wrote in 1948 that detailed his experiences when, at age 61, he disguised himself as a black man and went on a dangerous undercover mission through the Jim Crow South.

OK, it wasn't the real Ray Sprigle who was standing on that stage two weeks ago at Washington College in eastern Maryland. The real Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter died in 1957.

The Sprigle under the spotlight was the dramatic creation of playwright Robert Earl Price and actor Del Hamilton, two friends from Atlanta's 7 Stages Theatre who've figured out how to bring Sprigle back to life in Mr. Price's latest play, "All Blues."

Mr. Sprigle's partner on stage in "All Blues" was, as it was in real life, John Wesley Dobbs. A prominent and powerful political and social leader from Atlanta's black middle class, Mr. Dobbs was challenging his city's white power structure and winning major civil rights victories when his young neighbor Martin Luther King Jr. was still in diapers.

Mr. Dobbs, 66 in 1948, drove Sprigle from Savannah to the Mississippi Delta in his own car, passing off the white, deeply tanned journalist as a light-skinned relative from Pittsburgh.

The unlikely duo drank at "colored-only" water fountains and were often forced to answer nature's calls together in the bushes alongside the road, because in the land of Jim Crow, blacks were denied the use of gas station restrooms.

Mr. Sprigle's subsequent 21-part Post-Gazette series describing how 10 million black citizens lived under America's cruel and unconstitutional system of apartheid was syndicated to about 15 papers in the North in the summer of 1948. Coming 13 years before John Howard Griffin's famed 1961 book "Black Like Me," it set off one of the first national media debates over segregation.

Early returns

Over the past 13 years I've become an accidental expert on the Sprigle-Dobbs partnership, retracing parts of their journey across the South for Post-Gazette feature stories in 1998 and in 2009 and developing a vested interest in the accurate portrayal of both men. I had no choice but to drive to the campus of Washington College to see how the unlikely road warriors were portrayed in the world premiere of "All Blues."

An early draft of the play was worrisome in that the real characters of the two influential, educated and sophisticated men were being sacrificed to the usual false gods of greater drama or politics.

But the version of "All Blues" onstage Sept. 15 was much better, more understandable and more affecting than that early script.

Mr. Price's one-act play, which continues its run through Oct. 9 at 7 Stages Theatre in Atlanta, gets its title and tone from "All Blues," the 1959 Miles Davis bebop classic whose brooding melody and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr. are a running theme.

The story line of "All Blues" is built around Mr. Sprigle's character, as interpreted and dramatized by Mr. Price with 10 actors and a simple set. But there's nothing simplistic about the play, which includes scenes of a slave auction, a segregated train and several encounters with "The Man" in the Delta and elsewhere.

Mr. Price uses the whole theatrical toolbox to show how he believes the lily-white conservative Republican heart, soul and mind of Sprigle were affected by the daily inequities and petty humiliations he saw and felt while passing as a pretend black man under Jim Crow.

Song, dance, poetry, elements of minstrelsy and two harpie-like characters express the fears and thoughts inside Mr. Sprigle's head. The playwright mixes Mr. Sprigle's newspaper writing with his own writing, plus quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Randy Newman's slave song "Sail Away." And he throws in political commentary, civil rights history, black-and-white photographs of the Jim Crow era and projects live video images of the characters onto screens hanging above the stage.

Stretched to the limit by Mr. Price's imagination, Mr. Sprigle's character even breaks into Stephen Foster's "Swanee River" (aka "Old Folks at Home") and has blackface makeup applied to him onstage.

Compared to the early draft, this version of "All Blues" had been stripped of some of its harder, political edge to avoid forcing the audience to choose sides. Yet it was still a thought-provoking, entertaining, 95-minute indictment of the moral, political and economic evils of slavery, Jim Crow, racism and intolerance.

The play evolves

The morning after the debut of "All Blues," Mr. Price and Mr. Hamilton sat at a table outside a Chestertown coffee shop. Mr. Price is a likable poet, screenwriter, playwright and ex-newspaperman who's not shy about his hope to use "All Blues" to instruct, persuade and start a serious conversation about the racism of yesterday and the racism he says exists today.

Mr. Price, 68, grew up in segregated Atlanta, enlisted early in the civil rights movement and spent time working on screenplays in Hollywood. The resident playwright at 7 Stages Theatre, he teaches creative writing and drama at Washington College, whose theater department co-produced "All Blues" with 7 Stages.

Del Hamilton, aka Ray Sprigle, is also 68. A steelworker's son who was born in Youngstown and grew up near Philadelphia, he co-founded 7 Stages Theatre in 1979 to, as its website says, create "a haven for artists and audiences to address social, political, and spiritual issues present in their daily lives." As 7 Stages' artistic director, his job is to pick the plays, hire the talent and connect with other like-minded theaters.

According to playwright Mr. Price, "All Blues" was born when Mr. Hamilton showed him a 2009 article I wrote about Mr. Sprigle and Mr. Dobbs' travels for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Mr. Price didn't think it would work until he downloaded Mr. Sprigle's entire 1948 series from the Post-Gazette site.

"God," he said, "Sprigle's writing was eloquent. He spoke the truth about what was going on in the South in 1948. The question for me was, how do you make it dramatic when it's just newspaper stories?"

Mr. Price said he asked himself why Mr. Sprigle -- whose other journalism missions included pretending to be a coal miner and a black-market meat salesman during World War II -- liked to disguise himself so much and go undercover.

He concluded that Mr. Sprigle must have gotten "some thrill or enjoyment out of fooling people." Mr. Price built Sprigle's character around the idea that Mr. Sprigle had certain naive assumptions about Jim Crow that were broken down when he encountered the realities of the South.

After a year and a half of thinking and imagining, and seven drafts, Mr. Price produced the script for "All Blues." The opening-night version will never be seen again, however, and the play will constantly change and evolve as it makes its run in Atlanta and beyond. As Mr. Hamilton said, "It's the way Robert works."

Mr. Price and Mr. Hamilton were not offended when it was suggested that both men, and Mr. Dobbs in particular, were portrayed as too subservient, too fearful of white authority. And Mr. Sprigle -- the same guy who wrote the eloquent words that Mr. Price figured out how to feature in his play -- is portrayed at times as clueless about racial slights or naive about the true nature of Jim Crow.

Mr. Price and Mr. Hamilton were aware of this critique. The actor who played Mr. Dobbs in Maryland, Robert Ortiz, had realized the character was being too subservient. "We're cutting some of that stuff out," Mr. Hamilton said.

"All Blues" is a perpetual work-in-progress. It's fluid, like jazz. The play has already gone through many adjustments and improvements since its debut. It's moved to Atlanta to the 7 Stages Theatre, where the original cast of mostly Maryland actors has been replaced with Atlanta actors and singers. Lines have been cut and added and hometown hero Mr. Dobbs is being played by a black man.

In a recent email, Mr. Hamilton wrote, "Almost everything has been restaged in Atlanta. It's a much clearer production, more intimate and dark." He added that he and Mr. Price were still trying "to capture Ray Sprigle's state of mind."

Mr. Hamilton, who has co-developed plays with theaters in places such as Belgrade and Johannesburg, hopes eventually to see "All Blues" staged in theaters around the world, including in Pittsburgh, of course.

Next year has been designated "The Year of Civil Rights" by the U.S. government, he said, and there's talk of taking "All Blues" to Berlin for a run at the U.S. Embassy.

Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Price are already thinking about how to trim the play so it can afford to go on the road. "We're not shooting for Broadway," Mr. Hamilton said. "We're shooting for the kids in high schools who've never heard about Jim Crow."

Or heroes like Ray Sprigle and John Wesley Dobbs.

Bill Steigerwald ( xpaperboy@gmail.com ) is a former Post-Gazette reporter and freelancer whose Community Voices blog " Travels Without Charley " chronicled his adventures following in John Steinbeck's footsteps. First Published October 2, 2011 4:00 AM


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