Amiri Baraka's Play about W.E.B Du Bois, via Woodie King Jr.
Even a relentlessly adventurous producer and director like Woodie King Jr. was bound to reach a breaking point when it came to Amiri Baraka.
For a half century, ever since Mr. King had his theater shut down and was nearly arrested in 1964 for presenting Mr. Baraka’s “The Toilet” in Detroit, the two men had brought to the stage a barrage of incendiary characters and themes. A middle-aged Tarzan, a Faustian Sidney Poitier, a slave ship, what Mr. Baraka called a “coon show”: These and many other theatrical Molotov cocktails found their way into works at Mr. King’s New Federal Theater and elsewhere.
But the last script that Mr. Baraka, who died in January 2014, handed Mr. King, “Most Dangerous Man in America (W. E. B. Du Bois),” was another matter altogether. The subject matter was no surprise: the revered African-American scholar and civil rights activist Du Bois, whose evolution from black nationalism to Marxism closely paralleled Mr. Baraka’s own.
Its size, however, was.
“This thing was 250 pages long,” said Mr. King, whose theater has provided an early theatrical home for notables like Ed Bullins, Ntozake Shange and David Henry Hwang. “Ossie Davis was doing the initial reading, and he and Baraka just got into it: ‘Look, you can’t give an actor no 250-page play!’ “ (Going by the page-a-minute rule, it would have run over four hours.)
That first reading was roughly a decade ago. Mr. Baraka came back a year later with a 90-page draft, having jettisoned reams of courtroom material and several characters, including Paul Robeson. Finally, at a 2013 arts festival in Atlanta, he gave Mr. King a lean but no less wide-ranging 50-page version.
This final iteration — or one very close to it — begins previews on May 28 at the Castillo Theater, the New Federal’s most recent home. It comes on the heels of a New Federal revival of “Dutchman,” the 1964 play that vaulted Mr. Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) to stardom.
Despite Mr. Baraka’s success as a playwright, Mr. King said the two men had bonded over music rather than theater. “We mostly talked about what clothes the jazz musicians wore,” he said. Having mutual friends like Langston Hughes also paved the way for a long-lasting friendship that would include collaborating on literary anthologies and documentaries.
“Most Dangerous Man” focuses on a period in Du Bois’s life with particular resonance for Mr. Baraka. Just as his Sept. 11-themed poem “Somebody Blew Up America” turned a fairly comfortable late-career job into a political firestorm, Du Bois, at 82, found his status as America’s leading black intellectual threatened in 1950 when he became chairman of a nuclear disarmament group and was accused of being an agent of a foreign state.
The ensuing indictment led to the confiscation of Du Bois’s passport and the rejection of many of his colleagues at the N.A.A.C.P. (a group he helped found). Mr. Baraka’s play, which still has a cast of 18 despite the trims, bounces between Du Bois’s trial and groups of working-class African-Americans reacting to the news of the trial on television and in newspapers.
Du Bois also steps forward on occasion to speak words from his speeches and writings. It was these rather sizable chunks of material that gave Mr. King pause. “In all of my conversations with Baraka, the hardest thing in the world was to find a Du Bois,” he said. “No 80-year-old can do that part.”
By the time he had raised the funding (in part through a Kickstarter campaign) to present “Most Dangerous Man,” a new Du Bois had surfaced in Art McFarland, who had retired from his decades-long newscaster position at WABC in 2014 and soon joined the New Federal’s board.
“My plan was to gradually ease my way back into acting,” said Mr. McFarland, who had trained as an actor before entering journalism and who had caught Mr. King’s eye during at least one of those early productions. “When Woodie called me about playing Du Bois for my first show, I spent the rest of the weekend with my jaw hanging open.”
Mr. Baraka converted to Marxism in the early 1970s, decades after he had inaccurately but presciently received a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force on suspicions of being a Communist. This conversion, Mr. King said, had everything to do with exposure to Du Bois’s writing.
And when Mr. Baraka was sold on something, he set out to convert friends as well as audiences. “Every once in a while,” Mr. King said, “Baraka would call you at 3 a.m. and say, ‘Hey, man, pick up “The Souls of Black Folk” and call me back.’ ”
This history reverberates through “Most Dangerous Man,” particularly as an elderly Du Bois looks back on his life. “I have been despised for so long for being black,” he says in the play, “that to tell me you will despise me because now I declare myself officially Red, does not faze me in the least.” (“I like to think Baraka had some fun sticking that line in there,” Mr. McFarland said.)
A continued commitment to Mr. Baraka’s work signals that the New Federal Theater, in its 46th year, hasn’t abandoned the hunger for experimentation and political inquiry that paved the way for works like “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” and “The Taking of Miss Janie.”
In fact, “Dutchman” has been the subject of periodic radical suggestions from Mr. King, including the proposed casting of the drag performer Neil Flanagan as the female lead in the 1970s, something its author never let him forget. “Amiri would stand up places and introduce me, ‘Here’s the man wants to mess up my play,’ “ Mr. King said.
Forty years after looking to take some liberties with Mr. Baraka’s first play, Mr. King is toeing the line with his last one. “These are the words that Du Bois gave, and these are the words that Baraka wrote,” he said. “This is real stuff.”