Sheffield — In some ways it was an unlikely setting: a re-enactment of a discussion by celebrities on race and civil rights from 54 years ago in a small entertainment hall in the mostly white Berkshires.
But don’t forget that Great Barrington was also the hometown of scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois and, just down the road in Ashley Falls, lived Elizabeth Freeman, the first slave to successfully sue for her own freedom and win.
It was against that backdrop that seven actors assembled Wednesday night at Dewey Hall and re-enacted the televised discussion, dubbed the Hollywood Roundtable, that took place the same day as the March on Washington, the massive 1963 civil rights gathering that featured Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.
“These seven men … have two things in common: they are entertainers and artists and they have all come to Washington,” said the moderator David Schoenbrun, a veteran CBS News correspondent.
The production was the brainchild of local actor Levi Joseph who directed it and played James Baldwin, the distinguished black writer and social critic. Donations collected at the door for the one-time performance benefitted the restoration of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, the same church Du Bois attended when he was a boy.
In addition to Baldwin, the original panel included film producer and director Joseph Mankiewicz along with actors Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando.
It was only a few hours after the march had concluded. All the panelists had attended the march. But as numerous accounts have documented, the roundtable was less than spontaneous and hardly independent of government influence.
Indeed it was sponsored and taped by the U.S. Information Agency and “intended to counter negative foreign perceptions of U.S. race relations by showcasing a collegial exchange of ideas between black and white Americans.” But to be fair, it did not paint the Unites States as a perfect nation.
As Mankiewicz put it, “This is the only country in the Western world where this [the march] is possible, but also the only country where this is necessary.” Perhaps there were some in South Africa who disagreed with him?
And there was also this hopeful observation from Baldwin: “No matter how bitter I become I always believed in the potential of this country. For the first time in our history, the nation has shown signs of dealing with this central problem.”
Not to be outdone, Schoenbrun got in a not-so-subtle dig on communism: “The hope of our country is that we can have demonstrations of this kind. There is no March on Moscow or March on Peking.”
The National Archives’ Richard Green observed that the USIA, “having no choice but to face up to the civil rights movement’s increasing visibility, decided to showcase events like the March on Washington as evidence of the vitality of the American democratic process.” The film was also shown to children in schools across America.
Nevertheless, the half-hour re-enactment in Sheffield provided the spontaneity that the original evidently lacked. While the actors did have scripts in hand and some struggled to be heard by the audience, they nonetheless exuded an energy and vitality that more than held the attention of the 75 or so people in the intimate confines of Dewey Hall.
The panel became increasingly animated toward the end of the discussion when the topic of the “Negro problem” came up, with Mankiewicz reordering the logic and insisting it was really a “white problem.” The latter distinction became fodder for a lively Q&A between the actors and the predominantly white audience after the performance. The discussion was facilitated by Joseph Scully, who played Heston (see video below by Terry Cowgill).
The casting for the show presented challenges. Three of characters were of African descent. All of them were male. Only one African actor was available, so David Asaph was cast as Sidney Poitier, the star of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Asaph later said the film was his favorite and Poitier was an actor he had always admired — a perfect match.
And of course the characters were all male and, in the original panel discussion, most were chain smoking, though Mankiewicz puffed on his trademark pipe. Smoking on the Dewey Hall stage was out of the question. Two of the male characters were cast with female actors and both did a very credible job: Grace Rossman as Mankiewicz and Johanne Kesten as Brando.
Joseph said before the show his inspiration for the project came while studying 1960s-era videos of Baldwin.
“I was inspired particularly by Baldwin’s thoughts and willingness to speak the truth,” Joseph said. “When I came across the roundtable clip with Baldwin, Poitier, Brando, Heston and the others, I thought this would be a valuable opportunity for community discussion.”
Joseph put out a call for participants on social media and quickly assembled a cast. He said the actors spent months with the material, “delving deeply into the characters and issues of the civil rights movement and exploring how those issues remain relevant today.”
The recently formed nonprofit group Clinton Church Restoration purchased the deconsecrated church, which served the southern Berkshires’ African-American community for nearly 130 years, in May.
The organization aims to restore and repurpose the building for community use in a manner that celebrates and honors the local African-American community, the history of the church itself, the legacy of Du Bois and the late Rev. Esther Dozier, its first female pastor.
Below is a video of the original Hollywood Roundtable: