Carly Hughes in Constant Star(Photo © Meghan Moore)
Carly Hughes in Constant Star
(Photo © Meghan Moore)
In Constant Star at the Merrimack Theatre in Lowell, five African-American actor-singers play the forgotten civil rights heroine Ida B. Wells. Wells, who lived from 1862 to 1931, comes to outrageous life in a kaleidoscopic concept developed by playwright and director Tazewell Thompson. All of the actors play Wells at all ages, and they also take the roles of other characters as needed. The approach brings home the point that a single individual can have several sides as Carly Hughes, Crystal Fox, Tracey Conyer Lee, Gayle Turner, and Laiona Michelle speak as Wells separately, together, or interrupting one another in mid-sentence.

Thompson has artfully blended Wells' written words with imagined dialogue and private thoughts. Did she really refer to Dickens and quote Shakespeare routinely ("I am as constant as the northern star")? It doesn't matter; the melding of her writings with the playwright's fictionalized biography is effective. The feisty Wells first came to public attention when she bit a conductor who insisted on removing her from a train car even though she held a first-class ticket. She sued and won, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Wells was stunned. "The gall stayed in the back of my throat for a long time," she says. "It pitched a tent and built a house there." As she had done when the untimely death of both parents threatened to result in the dispersal of her siblings, she turned distress to action.

Wells' career as an activist included being a partner in a newspaper, The Free Speech Headlight; helping to launch the NAACP; founding Chicago's Negro Fellowship League; touring the United States and England to denounce lynching; and collaborating in her outspoken way with suffragist Susan B. Anthony. "I never minced my words," Ida claims with pride. "I can't begin to imagine what the word 'compromise' tastes like." She attacks men in the civil rights movement: "What sticks in your craw is the very idea of a woman being a leader." She lambastes President McKinley as "that isolated, backwoods heathen."

But Wells reserves some of her most ferocious criticism for Booker T. Washington. Although Washington, an outstanding scientist, was serving his race as he thought best, Wells calls him a "civil rights tourist" and growls, "I have never met a man so self-satisfied....He needs to stop talking and keep moving his sorry self backward." She has no patience with his pragmatic, go-slow approach to equality. "I want to be able to walk down the street breathing freely here in America," she cries, declaring that if the country refuses to act like "a nation of laws and not men," it is going to have to answer to her. America was not acting like a nation of laws in her day, what with the hideous tortures of black men, women, and children by gleeful mobs of white men, women, and children carrying Bibles. The playwright does not spare us details that rival those of Abu Ghraib, Rwanda, and the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. We are not allowed to feel smug; we have not evolved enough.

The play features five-part a cappella spirituals, such as "Deep River" and "Balm in Gilead," which underscore both African-American roots and the universal longing for justice. The range of the vocalists is remarkable and it's hard to single out any one of them, though Carly Hughes deserves mention for her renditions of ' "I've Been in the Storm So Long" and "Somebody's Calling My Name." It is equally difficult to single out for praise any of the inspired acting performances by these stage and screen professionals. However, Laiona Michelle, who holds a graduate degree from Brandeis University and teaches performing arts in Springfield, is a special delight as the child Ida bossing her siblings in a game of Queen Bee and drones.

The impressive set, designed by Donald Eastman, includes a tile floor and high, partially painted windows such as might be found in one of the Lowell mills or, perhaps, a 19th century newspaper company like Wells'. The decision to move Act I's set pieces into a pile upstage for Act II seems odd at first, until one gets the message that Ida's jumbled past goes where she goes. Costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh's black, white, and gray costumes from five periods in Wells' life are magnificent.

The shimmering lighting by Robert Wierzel and the dramatic sound effects by Fabian Obispo contribute masterfully to the changing atmosphere. Musical director and vocal arranger Dianne Adams McDowell and Thompson have helped the performers draw the essence of Ida from within. Although they portray a woman whose world is in many ways foreign to theirs, they have an energy and immediacy that seems to express a deep personal knowledge. Playgoers, too, may come away thinking they have always known Ida B. Wells, a true force of nature.