Playwright Sheds Light on Mary White Ovington

 Clare Coss
Clare Coss

By Annette Hinkle

Professing a belief in equality is a noble calling. But staying true to those ideals in the face of opposition, prejudice and hatred is another matter altogether.

In her one-woman play “Dangerous Territory” writer and East End resident Clare Coss delves into the issues of social justice and activism by offering the story of a little known figure in history who played a major role in the advancement of the rights of African Americans.

The unlikely heroine of “Dangerous Territory” is Mary White Ovington (1865-1951), a white woman — and journalist — from Brooklyn, N.Y. who made it her mission to improve the lives of African Americans. In fact, though few people today realize it, in 1910 Ovington was a co-founder with W.E.B. DuBois of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People].

This Sunday, March 24 at noon, Coss will offer a reading of her play at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton. It’s a most appropriate venue, given that both Coss and Ovington were raised Unitarian and can trace their early moral belief systems to that upbringing.

“I felt an affinity for her,” says Coss. “I was brought up as a Unitarian and did eight years of Sunday school in Plainfield, N.J. There were a lot of progressive ideas there.”

“That Unitarian background was central to Mary,” adds Coss. “She was from Brooklyn and the granddaughter of Connecticut abolitionists. Her family joined the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn which had John White Chadwick, a radicalized pastor.”

Coss notes that Ovington was greatly influenced by Chadwick and he, in turn, provided Ovington with her first consciousness on racial inequity. While her family was progressive when it came to promoting tolerance, respect and freedom for African Americans, ironically, that tolerance didn’t extend to social integration between whites and blacks.

“Mary worked through that,” says Coss.

If you’ve never heard of Mary White Ovington, you are certainly not alone. Coss didn’t know about her either, until she began research for another play about another activist.

“I discovered Mary when I wrote a one woman play about Lillian Wald, the founder of the Henry Street settlement,” says Coss, explaining that in the early 20th century Wald worked to improve the lives of the poor on the lower East Side through social services.

It was while researching Wald that Coss came across Mary White Ovington, who tried to convince Wald to include black women in her programming.

“I had never heard of Mary,” confesses Coss. “That’s how I got interested in her — nobody knew about her, except active NAACP members.”

But it turns out that Ovington had her own impressive history to work from — and groundbreaking history at that.

In 1895, Ovington helped establish the Greenpoint Settlement in Brooklyn, which, like Wald’s settlement in Manhattan, served poor white immigrant children and adults. But Coss notes Ovington soon learned that even children could be extremely racist and no black children were allowed in the program.

It was around that time when Ovington also discovered the Social Reform Club, a group comprised of social progressives. Ironically, though the organization was focused on improving the plight of African Americans, it remained a totally white organization. When Booker T. Washington came to speak at the club, it was a seminal moment for Ovington.

“He leaned forward and said there was not one black person in that room. The black people were outside the vision of the reformers,” says Coss. “That was her big epiphany. They hadn’t done any outreach and she hadn’t thought about it. They had panels and committees, but then realized, ‘We don’t know any black people.’ They didn’t think about integration first.”

“That’s what changed her,” adds Coss. “It made her think ‘I have to change my life.’”

In 1904, Ovington began corresponding with DuBois on issues of racial equality, and in turn, he introduced her to the black community. The two became allies, friends and eventually co-founders of the NAACP.

“From then on, she led a totally integrated life,” says Coss who was so inspired, she set out to share Ovington’s story as a play. Though the one-woman format does present it’s own unique challenges, Coss tackled the issue with a rather unique solution.

“The structure is very unusual,” concedes Coss who has set “Dangerous Territory” in Ovington’s NAACP office in New York City in 1920. “She’s addressing someone who’s not there.”

In fact, the audience is asked to imagine that the father of one of Ovington’s young protégés is present — and angry.

“He has come to her office to tell her to leave his daughter alone,” explains Coss. “He plans for her to get married have a good life and not be an activist.”

His anger leads Ovington to share her philosophies and belief system with him as she works to open his mind to the issue of racial equality. Though the play is, technically, a monologue, the father’s unspoken responses make the structure much more dynamic than a straight-forward monologue.

And Coss thinks she knows why.

“There was a New York Times article recently about why people on cell phones on trains or buses annoy fellow passengers,” explains Coss. “The reason is when you’re only hearing half a conversation, the human mind has to fill in what’s being said on the other end.”

“People remember these one sided cell phone conversations forever,” she adds. “You can’t get it out of your mind.”

While the overheard cell phone call on the Jitney is not exactly a high-minded parallel, Coss does feel the one-sided conversation works well on stage precisely because it engages audiences.

“I was kind of amused by that story, which is a totally different context,” she says. “That’s the structure I’ve wanted to use. The audience has to be active in imagining what the father is saying by her next response.”

And in the end, audiences will come away with new knowledge and respect for a forgotten heroine of social justice.

“I think Mary White Ovington was rather unique, ahead of her time and very courageous,” says Coss. “She was a white woman on the cutting edge of equal rights and civil rights. She was the only white women DuBois knew who crossed that line. She understood that white people have a choice to deal with racism, but blacks deal with it every day.”

“One point that’s important, when the NAACP was founded, DuBois brought in the black progressives of the Niagara Movement, and she brought the white progressives and the two of her merged,” Coss adds. “It was an interesting beginning. They wanted an integrated organization and it was a great experiment that had never been done.”

While the play is the focus of Sunday’s reading, Coss notes the discussion afterwards, which will be led by her partner, Blanche Wiesen Cook, is what she finds most exciting.

“It gets people thinking about the whole subject of equal rights and how we each have a responsibility to make this a better world — to work for dignity, respect and equality,” says Coss. “Everyone has a responsibility to help make that happen. This is a primer, in a way, for people who haven’t wanted to take a next step. Being an activist is a step further than caring. Caring is great – you have to care … and you have to act — that’s the perfect combination.”

“Dangerous Territory” by Clare Coss will be presented this Sunday, March 24, 2013 and noon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, 977 Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike. Admission is free. For information call 537-0132.