Michole Briana White in Of Equal Measure
(© Craig Schwartz)
Michole Briana White in Of Equal Measure
(© Craig Schwartz)
The new play Of Equal Measure, now getting its world premiere at Los Angeles' Kirk Douglas Theatre, marks the sixth collaboration between playwright Tanya Barfield and director Leigh Silverman, and the director admits that it took her a little while to warm up to the subject matter; using the story of a fictional White House secretary named Jade Kingston (played by Michole Briana White) to show how U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (played by Lawrence Pressman) ultimately segregated the staff of the White House, eliminating all important African-Americans in power.

"When Tanya first started telling me all the history -- and no one does as much research as she does -- my eyes started to glaze over," says Silverman. "But ultimately, the play has so many resonances to today -- from little things like how Wilson made all restaurants replace the word 'sauerkraut' with 'Liberty Cabbage' to the larger point of how one administration can simply set a cause like the civil rights movement back 25 years. But we haven't made these comparisons pointed; we want people to hear them and just absorb them."

While Silverman has directed plays set in many time periods -- ranging from the 1950s to the present-day -- Of Equal Measure presented her with a distinct set of challenges. "First, just trying to convince the men in the cast to wear three-piece wool suits in the middle of summer in L.A. was not easy," she says. "But we had lots of challenges, like trying to learn how people of different races related physically back then. Our dramaturg read lots of plays from that period to see if handshakes were common; they were, but not between races. Instead, there's a lot of hat tipping going on. Or trying to find authentic movie seats from this period on short notice, when Tanya changed a scene from a cafe to a theater."

Barfield and Silverman also watched actual newsreels of Wilson, but didn't want Pressman to do an exact imitation. "Our goal was to stress certain things about him -- like being a strong orator -- without asking Larry to replicate him," she says. "What's exciting about this play is that the audience comes in with some sense of who Wilson was, we show them what they think they know -- and then we pull the rug out from under them."