Of Equal Measure
By Tanya Barfield
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Kirk Douglas Theatre
June 29 – July 27, 2008
Michael T. Weiss, Michole Briana White. Photo: Craig Schwartz
Playwright or Historian? Tanya Barfield tries to be both and two hours later comes up short as either. This is often the problem of writers who try to goose up history with a mixture of real and fictional characters or try to cover too much territory in too short a time. The problems Of Equal Measure are not the fault of cast or director, Leigh Silverman. Where there was meat enough in a role such as that of Robert Lansing the Secretary of State (Dennis Cockrum) or Wilson’s Chief of Staff Joseph Tumulty (JD Cullum) the characters rang true. However, Jade Kingston, the central figure to the story, was a stick figure representing the indignities of a black and a woman who believed in her own abilities trying to rise up above expectations only to be compromised and beaten down. Though Michole Briana White, tried mightily she was not able to rise above the wooden part.
It is true that American history books have given Wilson a spit and polish that may have been justified on the economic front but ignored the havoc his administration wreaked upon minorities. It is probably true that there were backstage influences in the White House – we know that his debilitating stroke in his second term was hidden from the public while Mrs. Wilson ran the show. We also know that after starting as an isolationist he justified his military actions as spreading democracy (sound familiar?).
Woodrow Wilson has never been on any serious top five US Presidents list. On the other hand, I’ve never before heard the former historian and President of Princeton University portrayed as a total stubborn fool or a buffoon. That is the Woodrow Wilson put forth by Tanya Barfield in Of Equal Measure. Certainly Ms. Barfield is right to portray him as naive in foreign policy and she certainly, and appropriately, raises one’s consciousness about his fundamental racism and the damage it caused, but he was not a fool in all matters. Her Wilson plays more like a Jon Stewart imitation of our current leader than as the serious, but misguided president he was. The result is not particularly humorous. Nor is the comparison to Bush II more than tangentially apt.
It was during Wilson’s first term that segregation became accepted in government agencies, beginning with his honoring a white, southern, postmaster’s complaint that negroes and whites had to share the same toilets. Assistants in the White house, which had been a somewhat integrated workplace (according to Barfield), and later, many blacks in politically appointed positions were systematically fired. Wilson replied to their protests, “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit and ought to be accepted by you gentlemen.” The policies of segregation his administration put in place were not ended until Truman came to power. Writing as a professor, Wilson had explained the growth of the KKK as a natural outcome of Reconstruction in his History of the American People. The books he wrote as an academic were also harshly critical of immigrants. Ms. Barfield has not made that up.
What she has ignored is that he was considered a Progressive, in many respects, and instituted such regulatory agencies as the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Trade Commission. He was also responsible for policy that fostered America’s global economic strength in the 20th century by pushing congress to change the revenue base of the federal government from one based primarily on import tariffs to one based on taxation of income. These are not sexy topics but they are very relevant to much of the economic health the country has enjoyed. They are not the machinations of an airhead as Ms. Barfield would have us believe.
In short, Of Equal Measure tries to fit Wilson into the mold of the uncurious, disinterested, and pig headed George W. Bush. The glove does not fit. We must acquit. Even though we now know how bad Wilson was for minorities (blacks in particular), he was not an empty suit which is how he is characterized – or should we say caricatured. Ms. Barfield also comes up short when trying to breath life into her fictional characters. Thanks for teaching a piece of history we all should be aware of, but no thanks for trying to stuff it into this particular dramatic vehicle and muddying up the message with information that is plain wrong.