Review of Action by Action Art Collaborative

    Action Art Collaborative is a new group that uses theater to analyze structural racism and poverty. The company strives to build community through stories of people power, solidarity, and social change.

    The group’s first offering is Action, a new play by Colin McLaughlin about a historic achievement of the Action Council to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), the civil rights group organized by Percy Green II. In December 1972, members of ACTION made their way into the segregated Veiled Prophet Ball and removed the veil from the prophet himself. “The play is based on extensive interviews with Percy Green II and other members of ACTION.”

    Action honors the 50th anniversary of the event with a deeply committed production of a compelling script.

    The play begins with a choregraphed montage of photos and clippings recounting the civil rights movement in St. Louis between 1964 and 1972. One of the milestones was the formation of ACTION.

    The Veiled Prophet Organization is introduced in a conversation in 1967 at the Saint Louis University Library between two members of ACTION: Jackie Bell, who had come to St. Louis to go to school, and Francis Sheridan, a St. Louis native. Bell questions Sheridan about a book she has found on the history the Veiled Prophet Parade. After learning the Veiled Prophet Organization is made up of the city’s elite, Bell concludes, “In Saint Louis…the White power structure has a name.”

    The next scene is a meeting at ACTION headquarters in late October 1972. In addition to Bell and Sheridan, the initial attendees are Gena Scott, Lena Lee, and George “Judge” Johnson. They are joined later by Percy Green II and Jane Sauer.

    The meeting’s purpose is to plan a protest at the Veiled Prophet Ball in late December. The group must decide who will infiltrate the ball with tickets obtained from an anonymous donor and what the interlopers will do. The upshot of the meeting is that Scott and Sauer will go the ball to uncover the organization’s great secret, the Veiled Prophet’s identity.

    The path to this decision is by no means easy. The play does not gloss over conflict within ACTION. In gripping dialogue, McLaughlin’s script digs deeply into raw feelings over the group’s commitment to nonviolence and other sensitive topics. Under Kathryn Bentley’s taut direction, the cast makes the tension in the room palpable. The splendid performers are Summer Baer as Scott, Miles Brenton as Green, Kayla Bush as Bell, Sieglinda Fox as Lee, Ryan Lawson-Maeske as Sheridan, Lize Lewy as Sauer, and Joshua Mayfield as Johnson.

    The infiltration of the ball is astonishingly dramatic even though Baer and Lewy have no one else to interact with onstage after Scott and Sauer have made their way into Kiel Auditorium. McLaughlin’s writing and Baer and Lewy’s performances are riveting.

    Scott succeeded in unmasking the Veiled Prophet, but the accomplishment did not have the anticipated impact. The only media outlet to publish the Veiled Prophet’s name was The St. Louis Journalism Review. Criminal charges against Scott were dropped so the name would not have to be revealed in court.

    The admirable designs include Shevare Perry’ costumes, Lily Tomasic’s set, Jimmy Bernatowicz’s sound, and Jayson Lawshee’s lighting and projections. The music was composed and performed by musical director Anita Jackson and musician Ryan Marquez.

    Action continues through November 19 at the Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue. Admission is free, but reservations need to be made at this webpage:

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by Michael Thanh Tran // AAC
    From left, Kayla Bush, Miles Brenton, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in