By: Mark Fitzgerald
?We?re not journalists — we’re BLACK journalists,? C.J. Caesar, publisher of The Vanguard in Chicago thunders at a reporter who has uncovered corruption in the congressional campaign of a powerful black minister. ?We tell black people what the news is — and then we tell them what to think about it!?
Ciaphus Julius Caesar is the Citizen Kane figure in David Barr III?s new play ?Black Caesar.? The play is running through April 1 in a production by the Chicago theatre group Pegasus Players. Like Kane, C.J. Caesar in the course of this two-hour play will start a newspaper out of idealism that will propel him to spectacular success and power. And like Kane, a corrupted and compromised Caesar will greedily grasp for political power.
A huge tabloid front-page even shows Caesar posing like Kane?s famous campaign photograph, with a homburg on his cocked head.
But Barr?s Caesar is also a mixture of the legendary figures of the black newspaper press, such as Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott and his nephew John Sengstacke, who ran the paper for decades and turned it into a daily.
Indeed, when the lights went up on this production the night I saw it, I was immediately transported in time to my first interview of Sengstacke, back in 1984. The stolid old-fashioned desk and African art seemed to have been lifted directly from Sengstacke?s always-dark office in the Defender?s old Mission-style building on the South Side.
Barr is an acclaimed playwright who has staged dramas featuring figures such as the contralto Marian Anderson and lynching victim Emmett Till. Right now in Chicago, three of his plays are running simultaneously.
But this is the one he?s proudest of, Barr says in a telephone interview. ?I don?t think I can write a better play,? he says. ?I might make better shows, but this is the best play I can write.?
?Black Caesar? was also the hardest to write. Barr said he started work on the play in 1994, and he was thinking about for years before. Several of his journalism professors at the historically black college Hampton were veterans of black newspapers such as the Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, Amsterdam News, and Baltimore Afro-American. Later, as a staff writer for Ebony Man in Chicago, he met current and past black press reporters through the local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. He has worked for Ebony Magazine since 1992.
Barr became so knowledgeable about the black press that he served as a consultant on the 2005 documentary ?Paper Trail: 100 years of the Chicago Defender.?
Barr?s play has led reviewers to speculate on the real-life model for his Kane-like protagonists, with most guessing Abbott or Sengstacke. Abbott, though, was a shy man in public, and Sengstacke — though he served on the commission that de-segregated the military during the Truman administration — never pursued political power.
?The (model for Caesar) is closer to Vann at the Pittsburgh Courier,? Barr says. ?For the politics, the raising of himself from humble beginnings.?
And for his influence. Robert Lee Vann during the 1920s and 1930s built the Courier into an enormously influential paper with a circulation of 200,000 nationally. As they did with the Defender, black railroad porters distributed it in the Jim Crow South. Vann was also politically ambitious and mobilized black voters to break away from the Republican Party, and support the Democratic Party led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As in ?Citizen Kane,? a reporter is assigned, on the death of C.J. Caesar, to investigate what made him tick. Along the way, Barr?s characters debate fundamental ideas about journalism and race.
Barr has outspoken ideas, for instance, about the state of the black press.
In the play, the Vanguard?s managing editor, a Jewish leftist who is the only white on the paper, says that the black press took a wrong turn after the urban riots and assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
Barr believes that as well. ?The black press veterans would tell you it was about advocacy for civil rights, but with objective reporting,? he says. After ?68, ?the content changed with less objective advocacy to one of placation, you know?, one of compromise.?
The black press, he argues, began playing the race card. On stage, the white managing editor and Caesar argue about running the story of Tawana Brawley, the black girl whose story of being raped and marked with racial slurs by several white men including police officers proved false. ?And this Al Sharpton,? the managing editor says, referring to Brawley?s then-counselor, ?you can?t trust him.? Caesar doesn?t care whether the story is true or not — he knows it will get a rise out of his readers.
?This victim-ism, it?s crippling black people,? Barr says.
Barr doesn?t spare himself in the play. The reporter who pursues Caesar?s story is an arrogant and self-destructive alcoholic. ?That?s all me,? he says of a period in his life when he was becoming a success as an actor, but was drinking heavily, ruining his marriage and piling up debt. ?Something was eating at me to be that self-destructive,? Barr, 43, said. ?When I showed (an early) draft to Alex, he said, ?My God, this has got a lot of pain in it. Do you really want to do this?? I said, ?It’s time, man.??
Alex is Alex Levy, the Pegasus Player?s artistic director, and director of ?Black Caesar.?
?David is always a fresh voice,? says Levy, who has staged six of Barr?s plays. ?He is always finding ways to tell stories from different perspectives, and he always has been a playwright with something to say — and, amazingly enough, that?s not often the case.?
?Black Caesar,? whose title character is played by the accomplished actor Alfred H. Wilson, takes some subtle digs at the newspaper business. The reporter?s immediate editor, apparently the only other black journalist on the mainstream daily is identified as ?editor of the diversity section,? and prods him to complete the Caesar profile before February, Black History Month, ends — and the paper will lose interest in publishing the story.
The play?s set, by Jack Magaw, is striking. Newspaper pages — most of them from the Defender — line the stage, and form three columns that suggest a web running through a press in the background.
?I was so proud to see everybody at Pegasus take (the play) as serious as I am about it,? Barr says. ?There were no compromises with this production. No BS.?