Review: ‘Character Building’ at American Ensemble Theater

There is something heart-stirring and inspiring about this new one-man musical. In between excerpts from glorious hymns and spirituals, the great African American educator and orator Booker T. Washington gives us a pep talk about how to live an honorable life—exhorting us to lift ourselves up, to be productive, to be of service—thus the title, Character Building. 

Booker T. Washington last appeared on a local stage as a pivotal character in Ragtime at Ford’s, based on E. L Doctorow’s novel. Here all the words are Washington’s own, unfiltered by anyone’s fiction, edited by Adapter/Director Martin Blank from informal Friday night talks that Washington gave to groups of 18-year-old students at the school he founded now known as Tuskegee Institute.

This was not long after Emancipation, and most of the students were former slaves. So historically we are far removed from those for whom the words were originally meant. Yet Washington’s words are so eloquent and urgent they demand to be heard again today. They touch us and galvanize us the way a thrilling preacher can. It’s history but it’s right on time. Because given where our national leadership has lately been mired, attending to Character Building is a satisfaction and a relief. It’s like discovering an ennobling ethical message in a bottle that has been adrift in an ignoble swamp.

Gregory Burgess as Booker T. Washington in Character Building. Photo by Kayla Mahood, Stone Photography.

On the upstage wall inside the small black box at Capital Hill Arts Workshop is projected a photograph of Booker T. Washington. It stays there throughout, a reminder of the man we now get to meet in the personable and imposing performance of Gregory Burgess.

At an upright piano stage right sits Musical Director Scott Farquhar, whose rousing Overture samples from songs in the show. Wearing a sharp vested suit (by Costume Designer Kristina Lambdin), Burgess enters a stage set simply with a writing desk, a chair, and drinking water on a small table. The spare effect achieved by Set Designer Halsey Taylor and Lighting Designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke fittingly keeps Burgess the focus of our attention.

Burgess has a wry twinkle in his eyes, even when he’s at his most earnest. And listening to his rich baritone vocals is a pleasure. There are nearly 20 musical numbers in the 50-minute show so, do the math, they go by quickly—just long enough to touch us with such classics as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” “Go Down Moses,” “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” “Shall We Gather at the River.” The multiple segues between spoken and sung sections are handled with extraordinary grace, and Blank’s apt juxtapositions of admonition and musical inspiration are a revelation.

Unlike many a contemporary self-help guru who preaches self-involvement to the privileged, Washington offered students solid advice about success that still rings good and true. For instance,

In considering your time, today, this week, this month, have you done your
best? I fear many of you, when you look at your conscience, must answer
that you have not. There have been minutes, hours, days, which you have
completely thrown away. If you have not done your best, straight from your
heart, in all your work and in life, it is not too late to make amends.

Get hold of this idea: you can make the future just what you want to make it.
You can make it bright, happy, useful, if you learn this fundamental
lesson—it never pays to do any less than your very best. To succeed, live
good, honorable lives by learning how to do something uncommonly well.

Crucially Washington linked success to service to others:

I call your attention to this fact: one thing is dependent for success upon
another; one individual dependent for success upon another; one family in a
community upon other families for their mutual prosperity. The same is true
in nature. One thing cannot exist unless another exists—cannot succeed
without the success of something else.

Washington was born a slave, raised himself up to get an education, and founded more than 3,000 schools for African-American children in the South—meaning he knew whereof he spoke. And throughout Burgess’s fine performance, the passion in Washington’s mission comes through vividly in his every conscientious phrase, his every wise word.

The show is intended for both school and adult audiences and easily builds a rapport with both. At one point during the performance I saw, Burgess sat on the steps next to a youngster and said, “You see? You see?” And he seemed to.

Music Director Scott Farquhar with Gregory Burgess as Booker T. Washington in Character Building. Photo by Kayla Mahood, Stone Photography.

For about a half-dozen musical numbers, Burgess and Farquhar sing together. Musically this works, their voices blend well, it’s a nice change of pace. But it temporarily makes the show about two guys dueting—one of whom we’ve gotten to know, the other we haven’t. Dramaturgically the pairing reads as a step out of character for Washington and interrupts the continuity of our engagement with him. In future productions (which I fervently urge that there be), an onstage youth choir—giving voice to the student generation Washington cared about and spoke to—could take this already soaring show to even greater heights.

Character Building plays through Black History Month only on Saturdays at 1:00 p.m., and seating is limited. As a theatrical testament to one of the most influential characters in Black History—and as a reminder of what matters in the character one calls one’s own—this powerful and pertinent musical is a hugely rewarding experience.

Running Time: About 50 minutes with no intermission.

Character Building plays Saturdays through February 24, 2018, at American Ensemble Theater performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) – 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, which are Pay What You Will, call CHAW 202-547-6830. (All proceeds from ticket sales benefit CHAW and its tuition assistance program, which allows low-income and homeless children the opportunity to make art.)

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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