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Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 11, 2005

Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist, a new play by Thomas Bradshaw, depicts scenes from the long and interesting life of the South Carolina politician who was a force in American politics for half of the 20th century. Among the incidents included are: Thurmond as Governor in 1948 labeling President Truman a socialist for proposing civil rights legislation and then bolting the Democratic Party to run for President himself; Thurmond, now a Senator, furious with President Kennedy for allowing Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead his historic march on Washington; Thurmond bemoaning the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 (and saying that the only good thing that's happened in the country lately was the assassination of JFK); and Thurmond at his 100th birthday party, virtually immobile and apparently senile in a wheelchair, being toasted by Trent Lott.

And oh yes, I nearly forgot: we also see young Strom at 22, lusting after a smart and pretty young black servant named Carrie. And then we see her pregnant, with Strom's daddy chiding her and other "Negresses" for being so promiscuous and fertile. And then we see, over the years, Essie, daughter of Carrie and Strom, apparently much beloved by her father despite his very public image as a segregationist.

Bradshaw makes the contradictions clear, and in places hints at what made Thurmond tick—what made him a man who proudly and repeatedly opposed equal rights for African Americans, while at the same time someone about whom his daughter Essie could make the assertion that is this play's title.

But Strom is very short—just 45 minutes long—and Bradshaw leaves us wanting much more when the piece is done. There's a deeply disturbing and fascinating paradox at the root of Thurmond's pscyhe, at least as Bradshaw speculates about it here. But the play doesn't go as far as it could to make a case for this speculation, and as a result it feels superficial and inconclusive.

It is, though, very funny, in a scary, discomfiting, politically incorrect way. The presentation of the ancient Thurmond in the final scene is wicked parody (if perhaps richly deserved); the rampant racism of Strom's father is bizarrely comical in the ironic way that offensive old movies of the Stepin Fechit school are. (Both Thurmonds use the "N" world profusely in this play, by the way.)

The play's irony hinges on its authenticity, which to my ear felt pretty strong. A program note (or something similar) indicating how much of what's attributed to Thurmond here is stuff he actually said would be useful.

The production is terrific. Eliza Hittman's staging is sharp and fast-paced and neatly simple. (The clever trick that she employs to switch locales from interiors to exteriors is too good for me to spoil here.) The actors are excellent. Jerry Zellers plays the title character as something of the village idiot, which is how he's written, but he's nevertheless likable in spite of everything, which serves the piece perfectly. Monica Stith projects intelligence and dignity as Carrie and Essie. And James Stanley is stolidly despicable as the senior Thurmond, Trent Lott, and a variety of political aides.

Some of the passages mark Bradshaw as a significant up-and-coming talent, in particular the scene in which Thurmond meanly belittles Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech with a bigoted response that uses the same rhetorical devices as the famous original. But Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist ultimately feels too slight to be entirely successful as the "political fantasia" that it's intended to be.