LGBTQ Black activist celebrated with ‘Bayard Rustin Inside Ashland’ at People’s Light

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“We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” — Bayard Rustin

The story of a Black, LGBTQ activist is taking center stage at People’s Light from May 18 to June 12. In the hands playwright-director Steve H. Broadnax III, titular actor Reggie D. White and music supervisor-arranger Jason Michael Webb, ‘Bayard Rustin Inside Ashland’ — a world premiere — is as joyful as it is poignantly intentional and dramatic.

Double its drama with the fact that this play is scribed and directed by a Penn State professor, stars a People’s Light regular, and is about West Chester, Pennsylvania native Bayard Rustin—the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and openly gay Civil Rights activist—means that its local lure comes from a history rarely told, of a man imprisoned in 1944 in Ashland, Kentucky, targeted for his sexuality, and devoted to nonviolent resistance.

“Like last year’s ‘Mud Row’ that I did with People’s Light, I was inspired by all things West Chester and its community,” said Broadnax III during a YouTube chat. “Bayard was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s chief advisor. Bayard was responsible for bringing the idea of nonviolence to the Civil Rights Movement. For that, he is one of West Chester’s heroes. And in all actuality, he is one of my heroes.”

Broadnax III’s admiration of the Black LQBTQ activist, personally and professionally, comes down to the fact that Rustin spoke for civil and human rights. And like Broadnax and White, the late great Rustin — awarded in 2013 by President Barack Obama a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom — proudly  identified as a “same gender loving male” is his time.

“To see someone who was openly Queer, and accomplished all that he accomplished in his life time, was miraculous,” Broadnax said. “You don’t know who you are until you see your own reflection…  I had, and saw that in Rustin, an activist, an athlete, a singer, an educator, an icon. He stood in his truth.”

“Ditto,” says White, with a laugh. “The one thing that Steve and I came to realize while doing this show is that we’re the same person. And that both of us think of Rustin as an inspiration.”

White and Broadnax relied on West Chester historian and activist Penny Washington in order to help the actor and the writer-director fill in the blanks about Bayard.

“Our stories are told incompletely,” says White. “There are lives and stories, literally in the ground, beneath our feet, that we need to know about. As a same gender loving Black man who cares about activism and progress – sometimes feeling pulled between his identity as a Black man, and his identity as a Queer man – we need good examples of people who had to exist in that dissonance. Bayard is the prototype, and it is an honor to bring his life to the stage of People’s Light.”

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