Play: “The Real McCoy”
Group: St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Through April 10
Tickets: From $17 to $47; contact 314-534-3810, 314-534-1111 or www.metrotix.com
Story: Elijah McCoy loved science since he was, as the saying goes, knee-high to a grasshopper. Born in Canada to runaway slaves in 1844, McCoy displayed a fascination with the scientific process even as a child. His gift was noticed by an observant teacher, who eventually arranged a partial scholarship for him to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, while his father scrimped together the additional costs for his higher education.
McCoy was taken under the wing of an esteemed physics professor named William Rankine, and seemed destined for greatness as an expert in the field of thermodynamics. While McCoy obtained 57 patents during his life for such recognizable items as the portable ironing board, lawn sprinkler and rubber-soled shoes, his greatest contribution was the invention of the self-lubricating steam engine that revolutionized the railroad industry. But McCoy, who had immigrated to Michigan to being his career, was considered a business liability because of his race and told to keep that fact as low-key as possible, an injustice that haunted him throughout his life.
Highlights: Written and originally staged by Canadian playwright/director/actor Andrew Moodie, “The Real McCoy” is a fascinating drama about a brilliant man who is largely unknown to most Americans, and who may or may not have inspired the famous phrase that bears his name. Moodie’s notes about the play observe that it is fiction inspired by a real person. His story, which sprinkles historical elements into its dramatic structure, is absorbing and engrossing, a beautifully textured piece receiving its U.S. premiere in a brilliant presentation at the Black Rep.
Staged by stage manager Tracy Holliway-Wiggins based on Moodie’s original direction, the Black Rep’s version is spellbinding in every aspect, from the uniformly expert portrayals of its septet of players to the ingenious technical design fashioned by an impressive array of artists.
Other Info: Everything works flawlessly in this riveting presentation. The set designed by Alex van Blommestein features railroad crossing rails that merge above the action, anchored by an odd concoction of artwork that represents myriad machinery prevalent in McCoy’s creative mind. It’s all laid out before a panoramic background that sweeps up toward the rafters, serving as a starry sky or a screen that plays out vintage newsreel footage of a bygone era, courtesy of van Blommestein and technical director Doug Schroeder.
Mark Wilson’s lighting underscores the dazzling array of inventions as well as the harsh treatment of McCoy and his personal tragedies (the deaths of two wives and an unborn child), while Robin Weatherall’s subtle sound design offers various Scott Joplin rags. Costume designer Jennifer Krajicek outfits the players in an assortment of togs that reflect their respective places in both time and society, while Robert van Dillen provides suitable props to reinforce McCoy’s genius.
Ka’ramuu Kush, who is on stage for virtually the entire two and a half hours of the two-act drama, is a powerful and convincing presence in the role of McCoy. Everything in life to McCoy, even emotions, is about efficiency, and Kush coolly and expertly conveys the scientist’s detachment as well as his curiosity, almost like a 19th century Mr. Spock. Even when Chauncy Thomas is on stage as the childhood Elijah, Kush stands resolutely in the background, clinically observing the interaction between himself and his loving but stern father.
Antonio Fargas is a powerful presence as the elder McCoy, who embodies the clash between Elijah’s inquiring mind and the more rigid, religious realities of his era. Thomas also is splendid as an amiable chap named Don Bogie, an easygoing young black man who befriends McCoy in Michigan but counsels him on maintaining deference to the white businessmen who employ him.
Monica Parks is outstanding as McCoy’s non-servile maid as well as his sophisticated first wife Anne Elizabeth Stewart and his grade-school teacher, while Sharisa Whatley is warm and caring as his childhood Nanny Hubbard and also hits the mark as his second wife, a somewhat cunning and calculating Mary Eleanora Delaney. Alan Knoll and Whit Reichert each is outstanding in a variety of roles, from a pair of pernicious businessmen brothers to McCoy’s mentor professor Rankine (Knoll) and a kindly Michigan businessman (Reichert) who treats McCoy as decently for his humanity as his scientific expertise.
“The Real McCoy” is a remarkable story and a mesmerizing presentation, a rare and beautiful theatrical gem that shines brightly on the Grandel stage.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.