Wednesday, September 13 I produced readings from a revised version of my first full-length play Iola’s Letter with an extended title: Iola’s Letter: The Memphis Crusade of Ida B. Wells. The reading was presented with the Hill Center on Capitol Hill – close to the power and the people who connect with the themes of this play. The timing couldn’t be better.
The undressed reading at the Hill Center by the cast under the direction of Michi Jones gave new life to the words for the audience to connect the dots and once again sadly resonate with the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Ida B. Wells challenges all who embrace a passion for justice in ways that can make you uncomfortable. She was an unapologetic moralist, and asserted her rights as written in the Bill of Rights and that included the 1st and 2nd amendments. Ida was relentless, and the word often attributed to can- and will-do women like her – difficult. In 1892, her outspoken writings on lynching cost the journalist her Memphis newspaper, Free Speech, and forced her into exile…in Chicago.
Public and published efforts to silence Ida B. Wells made her one of the most famous newspaper women and activists of her time. Frederick Douglass would become a mentor; and she co-founded the NAACP with W.E.B. DuBois. Ida B. Wells-Barnett (after her marriage to attorney and newspaper owner Ferdinand Barnett of Chicago) was a founder and activist in women’s clubs serving persons in need, advanced the campaign for civil rights, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with suffragists for women’s rights.
I love historical drama. Many fans enjoy the beautiful “period” costumes, settings, and a chance to be swept away to another time. In the case of Iola’s Letter based on those real-life events in Memphis, Tennessee in 1892, there’s no need for the period dress up. The story, set in the post-Reconstruction South, is sadly familiar, even contemporary. In my introduction I describe the play as a series of conversations around unresolved issues around racial injustice, class, and the hopes and dreams of communities who are striving to build futures under hostile circumstances.
My play has its history too. Between Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s SCOTUS confirmation hearings (1991) and the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. by white supremacists in Jasper Texas (1998), I was contemplating, writing, and preparing Iola’s Letter for its first staged reading at Howard University directed by [professor emeritus] Vera J. Katz. Neither events were the impetus for this play, but the conversations certainly informed key themes: an African American woman whose words were disputed and characterized as doing more harm than good; an African American man tortured and killed because of the color of his skin.
How would Ida have responded to then Supreme Court nominee Thomas’ claim of a “high tech lynching”?. Would Ida, if there was “social media” in her toolkit, direct Justice Thomas to view the multiple videos of Black men and women being shot, assaulted, by persons known or unknown, including persons authorized to “uphold the law.” Would Ida just repost the video or investigate?
….I did not come to bring peace, but a sword ~ Matthew 10:34 I New Testament
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them. ~ Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Despite threats from her enemies, or censures from her peers, Ida B. Wells never relented. Yet she could be dispirited by rebuffs from the “Negro leadership” whose organizations depended on the philanthropies of white supporters. Frances Willard, the crowned leader of the Temperance movement, publicly condemned lynching overall yet disputed Ida B. Wells’ reports especially when it concerned white women having consensual relationships with Black men.
The role of the press cannot be understated in this scenario. I wish there was more time after the reading to talk with the guest speakers. Jonetta Rose Barras, a community organizer turned journalist who embodies the Ida B. Wells spirit; and Dan Moldea, an investigative reporter who like Ida is willing to put his hands into the corruption therewith of a story. I wish there was more time to talk with the audience. The play triggered something in the room and for the persons who had the opportunity to speak, they gave testimony, shared information and concerns. Perhaps all the questions on this topic have been exhausted, except one — What are our next steps?