By Patricia Contino
Teachers teach, even when the KKK comes to burn down your school. That is among the many lessons this master teacher imparts to her audience in “First by Faith: The Life of Mary McLeod Bethune.” Thanks to Dr. Bethune’s hooking up a makeshift generator and leading the campus community in prayer, the Klan backed off. Performer and playwright Richarda Abrams makes you wish that there were more leaders like Bethune.
Luckily, for an hour, Bethune returns as a guest speaker. Ms. Abrams and director Dina Vosi present Bethune’s story at a schoolroom where she speaks to the audience (who needed little encouragement to complete this assignment) about her life and hopes for the future. When she asked whether anyone was familiar with her work, about half raised their hands. She wasn’t surprised ‑ considering how histories (American, African‑American, Feminist) are reduced to the barest bare minimum as high school and undergraduate requirements. While refinancing student loans is a priority for the Democratic presidential candidates, education reform is an abstraction.
The daughter of former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875‑1955) was one of 17 children, and attended school through age 16. Her “gap” years were spent working in cotton fields and teaching other sharecroppers how to read. Thanks to her teacher/mentor Emma Jane Wilson, Bethune was able to go on to college. After her application to become a missionary in Africa was rejected, she turned her attention to African American education. She moved to Daytona with her husband and son, where she founded the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which went from six female students to what is now Bethune‑Cookman University, one of the 11 historically black colleges and universities. A national presence and natural leader, she was friend to Eleanor Roosevelt and advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1936 appointed her Administrative Assistant for Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration ‑ and the first African American woman to head a federal agency. Though not mentioned, the last years of her activism coincided with the beginnings of another Floridian, the suffragist and conservationist Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.
An important, full life like Bethune’s could easily be a movie or miniseries. Here, it is presented as the best kind of lecture that only a master teacher can deliver. The engaging Ms. Abrams uses basic costume changes to signify the advancing stages of Bethune’s life, and she sings spirituals with a powerful voice. Her Bethune is compassionate while describing slavery as a “collective” American history, and angry that there is still no federal anti‑lynching law. Ms. Abrams believes, as Bethune did, that education should be for all.
“First by Faith: The Life of Mary McLeod Bethune” is good theatre because it goes beyond theatre. It is a timely reminder of someone who made a difference ‑ and still can, if only everyone would listen.
“First by Faith: The Life of Mary McLeod Bethune”
Written and Performed by Richarda Abrams
Directed by Dina Vosi
September 26 at 7:30 PM
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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PATRICIA CONTINO has written about the performing arts for several online publications. The NJ native and resident received her MFA in Writing from The New School and is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.