Jacqueline E. Lawton was angry. The award-winning playwright and dramaturg in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art was deep into a semester-long fellowship for a new work that was sparked by the attacks on journalism that had become prevalent under the Trump administration.
Her research led her to the story of Marvel Cooke, a writer, journalist, and civil rights activist, who broke boundaries when she became the first Black woman to be hired as a reporter at a mainstream (read: white-owned) American newspaper, The Daily Compass, of New York, in 1950. Before that landmark job, Cooke worked as an editorial assistant to W.E.B. DuBois and critic at the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, subsequently reporting for the New York Amsterdam News and editing at a weekly New York paper, The People’s Voice.
Her labor activism, organizing New York’s first chapter of The Newspaper Guild, and political and civil rights work with activists including Paul Robeson, gained the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who subpoenaed and grilled Cooke in 1953 before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Lawton’s fury at never having heard of her before was tinged with a different emotion: grief.
“How different would my life have been if I’d known her history—known this woman advocated for us so strongly and protested by taking to the streets, leaving her job, to tell the stories of people who look like me,” she says.
Lawton wrote her latest drama, Edges of Time, to make sure Cooke’s story was remembered. PlayMakers Repertory Company gave the one-person show its world premiere in a production starring veteran actor Kathryn Hunter-Williams, whose livestreamed performance was made available as video-on-demand in March and early April.
The company revived the online production this week in honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Patrons can view the work online through Sunday night, May 9.
The drama finds Cooke in the company of friends on the morning of September 16, 1963, the day after the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s a turning point, “a moment that sort of stopped a nation,” as director Jules Odendahl-James notes.
The moment also poses a direct challenge to Cooke herself. Blacklisted after the McCarthy hearings, the former reporter hadn’t worked as a journalist in a decade.
“I tried to imagine how bereft she must have felt,” Lawton says. “She didn’t have a newsroom to run to. She couldn’t say ‘Let’s pick up some petty cash, I’m heading to Birmingham to get on the ground on this.’ She didn’t have a byline to tell this story.”
It’s a moment of transition the show’s director thinks many can relate to, within the context of recent history and present-day events: it’s a catalyst that prompts Cooke’s character to look, react, and ask herself what she can actually do.
“Many of us spent most of the last administration trying to ask that question,” Odendahl-James says. “What do you do when life and the structures that you want to critique also give structure to your daily life, including your job, your education, and your community space? If you want to push back against those, you’re still relying on them to have some stability, and it seemed like everything was slipping from our grasp.”
The director concludes that finding a moment like that in Cooke’s life lets today’s audiences join her. “There were so many moments from January 2017 on where we found ourselves having to confront and ask how do we do it: how do we be activists, grapple in public with what’s happening, and try to reshape it?”
Cooke was an unrelenting critic of the journalism of her time, with an insider’s damning knowledge of the industry’s frequent shortcomings. In Lawton’s script, after reading The New York Times’ cover story on the church bombing, her character concludes, “This reporting isn’t for the Black people of Birmingham. It can’t be. That’s no way to comfort people in mourning. And it certainly won’t reassure a community that is rightfully enraged.”
Moments later, she bluntly tells her audience, “I don’t trust newspapers.”
In coming to terms with Cooke’s unsparing candid critiques, Lawton recalls having to stop and ask, “Wait—what is she actually saying?”
“I thought about James Baldwin, who said, ‘I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,’” Lawton notes. “I think about my relationship with the United States, as someone who’s had the fortune to travel to other countries. I think of my relationship with the American theater, which I love, but I’m going to critique it to the edge of its life because of its exclusionary practices. That’s what she’s doing.”
Cooke “looks at the field she loves,” Lawton concludes, “and she’s saying, ‘Damn it, we can be better than this. We are better than this. We have principles. Let’s follow them.’”
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