Theatre North’s ‘Green Book’ offers a lesson in humanity
Alex Geiger, who plays Keith Chenault in Theatre North’s production of “The Green Book”
Traveling was a dangerous affair for black Americans in the Jim Crow era. It was so potentially perilous that tens of thousands used a guide to get safely from city to city. Written by a New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green, “The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide,” later known simply as “The Green Book,” was widely used from 1936 until shortly after the passage of The Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Green was inspired to write the guide after seeing similar books written for Jewish travelers who also faced discrimination during travel. The guide detailed locations across America deemed safe for people of color to eat, shop, stay, and enjoy themselves without fear of humiliation or arbitrary arrest. Several destinations on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street were listed in the book. The historic Threatt Filling Station in Luther was also listed as one of the few gas stations on Route 66 that would serve African Americans.
At the time the guide was used, many cities in the deep south employed “sunset laws,” forcing black visitors to depart at the end of the day. Since many cities did not have hotels that would serve African Americans, the guide included a list of homes where black families could rent a room. These encounters served as the foundation of the play “The Green Book” written by author, playwright, and filmmaker Calvin Ramsey. The play is inspired by the travel guide and is the latest production from Tulsa’s Theatre North. The play will be performed Feb. 3–10 in the Liddy Doenges Theatre at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.
Founded in 1977, Theatre North is Tulsa’s first African American theater company. The theater recently made history when it won a TATE award for their production of “Seven Guitars.” Tulsa’s production of “The Green Book” is directed by Dr. Rodney Clark, who has been working with Theatre North since the early 90s. The play is set in the 1950s and tells a story of an unlikely friendship formed in the home of the Davis family—a location in Jefferson City, Missouri, listed in the Green Book as a haven for black travelers.
The play takes place during a weekend when W.E.B. DuBois is set to deliver a speech at a local black college. The Davis family is taken aback when a white traveler, Jacob Lansky, shows up on their doorstep. “He was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he refused to stay in an establishment that wouldn’t accept negroes,” Clark said. “Part of that [resistance] is based on the fact that he was Jewish, and probably wouldn’t [have been accepted] either.”
“The Jewish people … knew what it was like,” said Nick Bushta, who plays Jacob. “They understood prejudice fully.”
However, the Jewish guest is not welcomed by all with open arms. Keith Chenault, a houseguest in the Davis home, becomes upset at the idea of a white man staying in a haven for African Americans. Played by Alex Geiger, Chenault is a traveling salesman for the Green Book whose focus on profits causes him to lose sight of the book’s mission. Chenault’s approach to selling the book is often exploitative, missing the guide’s primary purpose of keeping black Americans safe.
“[There is a] contrast of the characters,” Clark said. “You’ve got this young businessman, who’s a go-getter and doesn’t know much about his own culture … and he kind of gets a lesson from the Jewish man on humanity. The young guy that’s selling the Green Book makes some serious mistakes about the concept of what the Green Book is all about [because] it isn’t about the money. It’s about people’s safety, it’s about people being welcomed [and] having a safe place when traveling.”
Soon after Jacob arrives, the Davis family leaves to attend an event. Jacob and Keith are left alone in the home. The two travelers engage in conversation and as Keith learns of Jacob’s disturbing past their understanding of one another grows.
“I can’t read through [the play] without crying,” Bushta said. “One’s person worst trauma isn’t comparable to another person’s worst trauma. So, it’s not really comparing the differences in the traumas—it’s saying that they’re both wrong, because it’s all wrong.”