Racing to stop a murderous black mob, white robes fluttering in the wind, slender spikes jutting forward from their hoods, the riders astride their galloping steeds look more like narwhals than Klansmen.
This infamous sequence from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 landmark film “Birth of a Nation” might play today like coarse lampoon, but upon its release many hailed the epic as a true chronicle of American history. In no less than 1,544 shots, recorded on 2.25 miles of nitrate-based film stock, Griffith’s film managed two extraordinary achievements: He perfected the essential cinematic form of Hollywood narrative cinema, and he revised with dazzling spectacle the history of Reconstruction America.
At the White House, President Wilson received a private screening. Upon seeing the film, he declared, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Or so the story goes.
Wilmington playwright David Robson will offer his own version of that story with his new play, “After Birth of a Nation,” which opens this month at City Theater Company. Oddly enough, or perhaps appropriately enough, Robson recounts the events of that strange screening in the White House through farce. It is a comedy born of his astonishment and fascination concerning the event. “I’d heard that it was the first film shown in the White House, and I thought, wow, I mean, that scene where the KKK comes riding in to save the virginal, white heroine—it’s just kind of jaw dropping.”
For Robson, that historical moment at the White House is the anomaly, the grain of sand that becomes a dramatic pearl. He tends to look outward rather than inward for inspiration, starting not with an internal experience, but with something out in the world. “I love history. I love research,” says Robson.
Curious, he began reading studies of the film itself and biographies of the principals involved, poring over the bitter history of lynching and the nascent efforts of the NAACP. He likens the research process to piecing together a puzzle. As the picture emerged, new questions arose. Robson found himself alternating between writing the play and researching history. Along the way he encountered a crucial piece to the puzzle, Margaret Woodrow Wilson.
“She looks like Wilson in drag,” Robson cracks.
That’s not so much a slight as a simple observation, and Robson’s admiration for Margaret shows when he lists her accomplishments. The president’s eldest daughter acted in essence as first lady of the White House then, during the war, devoted her energy to raising money for the Red Cross and traveling war-torn France to sing for the troops. Later in life she took up residence at an ashram in India.
“Hers was a journey that interested me,” Robson recalls. “When I found her, I knew the play could work.”
This is not the first time Robson has confronted a weighty topic centered on an interesting woman. The first full-length play Robson had success with took as its topic the Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl, whose cinematic efforts, like Griffith’s, shaped an image of the world through the lens of white nationalism.
“You can tell I always go for the light stuff,” he quips.
His interests, in fact, vary widely. An associate professor at Delaware County Community College, Robson’s scholarship complements his career in theater, affording him both time and inspiration for his dramatic work. He writes prolifically. In addition to 20 years’ worth of plays, which number in the dozens and have been produced around the country, Robson has also authored a number of volumes for young-adult book series. His work includes histories of Auschwitz and of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; biographies of celebrities, athletes and mythological creatures; and accounts of the murders of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Emmett Till.
Literature, poetry and history occupied Robson early in his life. Born in 1966 and raised by his mother in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, he became involved in theater when he attended Penn Charter High School. That interest grew with the encouragement of his mother, who in spite of the financial burdens of being a single parent, managed to save for yearly subscriptions to the theater. Robson’s academic career led to, among other degrees, a master’s in English education. He began teaching high school in the early 1990s.
Feeling a desire to create his own dramas, Robson began to pen short plays. “They were often silly or funny,” he recalls, and their format fit nicely with the efforts of an embryonic theater project that would eventually emerge as City Theater Company. The plays were performed at Wilmington’s now defunct O’Friel’s Pub, where the upstairs room became an experimental proving ground for Robson’s art. By the decade’s end, Robson had hit his stride. In 2001, InterAct Theatre Company of Philadelphia staged his first professional equity production.
InterAct would play another important role in 2013 when, along with Act II Playhouse, it co-produced Robson’s “Playing the Assassin.” Bud Martin, now executive director at Delaware Theatre Company, had read the play while still artistic director at Act II Playhouse and spurred the joint project, which staged performances both in Philadelphia and Ambler.
“That was a real honor,” Robson says. “I respect the work they do. I respect Bud a lot. And it’s really cool to have it done in your backyard.”
“Assassin” played to great success and got picked up by Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, N.Y. That production garnered the attention of The New York Times. Enthusiastically, if perhaps a bit predictably, the reviewer pronounced the work a “touchdown.”
Around that time, Robson got in touch with his longtime friend Michael Gray, artistic director at City Theater Company, and pitched “After Birth of a Nation.” Gray agreed that the play fit well with the aesthetic of City Theater. “It’s a quick moving farce, political, controversial, challenging—the kind of stuff we love to do,” Gray says. “After Birth” is a play that reminds patrons “they are alive in their chairs, not just passive viewers, that they’ve had an experience and they’re going to talk about it.”
The play is a product of years of revision and many table readings, a painstaking process of collaboration that Robson sees as essential to his creative efforts. “I love the back-and-forth. That’s a large part of what theater is about,” he says. The feedback often leads to that most difficult and essential task of writing, revision, but Robson checks his ego at the door for the sake of the play. “I just want what’s on stage in the end to be as good as it can be. Maybe I should feel more controlling about it, but I don’t find that the words are necessarily precious.”
“He listens,” says Gray. “He listens to the actors and he listens to the play. Some writers get really caught up in their words and they want to hear all their words. He’s all about making the play work, tightening his work to make sure it hits the mark.”
Both Robson and Gray are optimistic that “After Birth of a Nation” will do just that, both in its ability to entertain and in the unplanned but undeniable contemporary relevance of the scenario. “The hope is that there is some deeper resonance,” says Robson. He expects people to leave the theater provoked a little by the circumstance of a woman as president, or an African-American as president, in the White House of a century ago.
“But mostly,” he says, “I just want people to laugh. I want people to go on a fun ride, a whirlwind.
“And Margaret is the eye of the storm. I kind of see her as a forerunner to the world my daughter has inherited,” Robson says. “When I discovered her, I thought she was so cool. For a woman at that time to move to the other side of the world, to try to be as independent as she could—she never married—I thought, wow, what courage that must have taken, courage that I will never fully understand.”
Such a story, Robson believes, finds a stage too infrequently, and even when the story is visible, people often refuse to see it.
Willful blindness. If there is a common element to which Robson returns often, it is the ubiquitous “ability to delude oneself.” “We all are guilty of this,” he says. “There’s a spectrum. There are people who are really guilty of it—there are the Leni Reifenstahls of the world. But all of us, to some degree, we tell ourselves stories. We create images of ourselves—the way we want to be seen, the way we want the world to see us, the way that helps us live with ourselves.”
In the same way, theater and film help people to create stories and images in the service of delusion. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” projects distorted images that obscure history behind an ugly hallucination. At the same time, theater and film can pull back the curtain, allowing audiences to see the artifice of delusion and to confront the truth of their own human fallibility.
Laughter in general, farce in particular, excels at this.
Robson seems confident in his ability to leverage silliness in the service of reflection, to bring immediate levity to a moment of historical gravity—to make ’em laugh.
“The weight of the themes is secondary to humor,” he insists, “secondary to people laughing at the absurdity of what’s happening in the White House—101 years ago.