Adam, The Life of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday February 17, 2017

Figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and John Lewis are among those that loom large when we think of the Civil Rights era and the heroes that fought for African-American rights. Another name that might be familiar to some is Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., even if not quite as widely celebrated as those other legends. But Powell was waging battles to help win civil rights for his black community decades earlier, as we learn in the new one-man play "Adam," now playing at the Castillo Theatre.

Written by playwright Peter DeAnda and performed by actor Timothy Simonson, "Adam" is a biographical play about Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as told by the man himself. It's notable that DeAnda chooses to introduce us to Powell as he's vacationing in Bimini, where he's lounging contentedly in the sun.

From the very beginning, we see that in some ways Powell defied our classic image of the deeply serious civil rights fighter. He looked like a matinee idol in his younger days, and he has no trouble admitting that he liked the company of women (even some famous ladies, like Dorothy Dandridge) and that he considered enjoying life to be a priority.

But, from Bimini Powell takes us back to his earlier days, jumping around in time to tell us about his preacher father, showing how he came to be a man of God, and also how he came to be a man of the people. Powell began by fighting for the people of Harlem during the Great Depression, leading boycotts and rallies that helped integrate the workforces of retail stores on 125th Street, going on to help get black workers hired at Harlem Hospital and for the 1939 World's Fair.

He was elected to the New York City Council as an independent in 1941 before being elected as a Democrat to Congress, where he served for decades. Considering this was where much of Powell's career was spent, DeAnda doesn't focus a lot on it, though he does have a frustrated Powell recall how his own colleagues turned against him to indict him for tax evasion. The details of why this happened and whether or not there was any guilt on Powell's part are somewhat unclear.

At just an hour and 15 minutes long, "Adam" is an excellent sketch of an intriguing man, wonderfully performed by Simonson. The play's main lack is simply that it doesn't spend even more time digging into Powell's character. We get a pretty good sense of the man, the activist, and the preacher, but I would have liked to see a bit more complexity and to learn more about any tensions between his personal and political life.

In particular, it would have been interesting to find out more about Powell's role the in the civil rights activities of the 1960s and whether he had any relationships (either complementary or contentious) with other titans of that era.

But there's no question that "Adam" succeeds in making you want to pick up a book to find out even more about this dynamic organizer and politician.

"Adam" runs through March 12 at the Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street, NYC. For information or tickets, call 212-941-1234 or visit www.castillo.org.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.