Melding Fact and Fiction Charles Smith's Superb 'Black Star Line' Chronicles the Effort of Marcus Garvey to Help Blacks Move to Africa

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Valeo Daily Herald Theater Critic

"Black Star Line"

- Mini-review: an entertaining and illuminating blend of historical fact and gripping drama

- Location: Goodman Theatre, 200 S. Columbus Drive, Chicago

- Times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Feb. 6 and 13; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Feb. 1, 3, 8 and 17. Closes Feb. 17

- Parking: $5 in Grant Park garage across the street

- Tickets: $25-$38

- Box office: (312) 443-3800

Historical drama is almost a contradiction in terms. If a play is perfectly faithful to the facts, it becomes a history lesson instead of a drama. If historical facts are fashioned into drama, some liberties must be taken with the facts in order to create characters and conflict.

But Charles Smith has found a beguiling balance between fact and fiction in his engrossing new play, "Black Star Line," which chronicles the strange campaign waged by Marcus Garvey to help black people move to Africa.

Smith immersed himself in the facts of Garvey's life, and while writing this play even developed some sympathy for Garvey's belief that "Negroes" could never be free in the racist atmosphere of the United States.

But while creating the Black Star Line - the fleet of steamships that would ferry black people to a homeland on the African continent - Garvey sought support from the Ku Klux Klan. This bizarre overture made perfect sense to Garvey - the Klan members didn't want black people in this country, and members of Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association didn't want to be here, so why shouldn't the Klan help send them to Africa?

This event becomes the climax of Smith's play, which traces the arc of Garvey's life from his first feeble efforts to organize black people in Harlem to his conviction for mail fraud, which effectively ended the mass movement he created.

What Smith seems to be suggesting is that not all ideas are created equal - some can liberate; some can corrupt - and leaders like Garvey who develop a philosophy rooted in hatred and suspicion of others are automatically in league with the devil. …