Play inspired by Dallas race relations book ‘The Accommodation’ comes to Fair Park

A play inspired by racism in Dallas in the 1950s and 60s has finally landed here. It’s about time, says director Guinea Bennett-Price, co-founder of Soul Rep Theater Company. Soul Rep presents the regional premiere of the play, Travisville, in Fair Park, not far from where some of the events it depicts took place. Travisville is a fictional account and never mentions Dallas by name.

“I’m sure other theaters considered it and had to say, ‘I don’t know if our audience is going to feel comfortable.’ It’s the last thing on our mind,” says Bennett-Price in a telephone interview.

Guinea Bennett-Price is director of Soul Rep Theater Company's production of "Travisville."
Guinea Bennett-Price is the director of Soul Rep Theater Company’s production of “Travisville.”(Courtesy of Soul Rep Theater Company)

“It’s uncomfortable for everybody, uncomfortable for some black people to hear these things, for us not to agree, to be on two different sides of the same issue. It’s going to be hard for us to hear [white characters] Honeycutt or Gillette be honest … These are the things that we didn’t hear each other say because we were apart. Now we do. Now we’re in a space in history where we can tolerate it.”

Travisvillewritten in 2018 by actor and first-time playwright William Jackson Harper, is a fictional account of Dallas journalist Jim Schutze’s recently republished book, The accommodation. Many Dallas residents have read it this year as part of a citywide book club called Big D Reads.

Since it went out of print almost immediately after first being published in 1986, The accommodation was difficult to obtain. It chronicled the bombing of the homes of black residents who dared to move into white neighborhoods, the city’s seizure of homes in the name of progress, and an arrangement between white business and the political establishment and the city’s leading black clergy to preserve peace at almost any cost.

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The accommodation argues that this agreement meant that the civil rights movement bypassed Dallas.

IN TravisvilleDallas native Harper is best known for her role as the philosopher Chidi Anagonye on the NBC sitcom The good placeavoids naming names in the hope of making the story universal.

Tyler Lang (from left) stars as Zeke Phillips and Wes Frazier as Minister Fletcher in Soul...
Tyler Lang (from left) stars as Zeke Phillips and Wes Frazier as Minister Fletcher in Soul Rep Theater Company’s Dallas production of William Jackson Harper’s “Travisville.”(Malcolm Herod)

The plot revolves around a planned downtown shopping complex called Travisville. Mayor Ainsley Gillette and developer Jaston Honeycutt (fictional characters played by Ken Orman) are behind it. In order for the project to succeed, they have to move black families into another segregated neighborhood.

It’s an allusion to Hamilton Park, created in the 1950s as Dallas’ first planned black subdivision, a place where African Americans unwelcome in white neighborhoods or pushed out of their homes by developers could resettle. Hundreds of black homeowners were moved out of the Fair Park neighborhood in the late 1960s and early 70s to make way for a parking lot.

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Tyler Lang plays Zeke Phillips, a young man who stages a sit-in at a downtown lunch counter,...
Tyler Lang plays Zeke Phillips, a young man who stages a sit-in at a downtown lunch counter, in William Jackson Harper’s play “Travisville,” produced by Soul Rep Theater Company.(Malcolm Herod)

In the play, four black church leaders debate and struggle over these types of accommodation. Into their midst comes Zeke Phillips (Tyler Lang), a young man who disrupts the status quo by staging a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter.

Travisville runs at the Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park. In the 1940s, Jones started the nation’s first professional regional theater company. In a 1953 co-production with a black cast, it welcomed the first racially mixed theater audience in Dallas.

Bennett-Price, who was born and raised in Dallas, says she had “first-hand knowledge” of redlining practices that made it harder for black residents to buy homes and was aware of the atmosphere of accommodation that surrounded race relations in the city. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School after a federal desegregation order in the 1970s turned the school into an arts magnet.

“Black people were made to feel that they had a responsibility to calm things down. Black ministers were asked to mediate between the city government and the black community, to keep a cool head and keep the National Guard out of Dallas,” says Bennett- Price. “The play wrestles with this idea that Dallas didn’t have a civil rights movement, by design. We will see who were the players in place to prevent that from happening. We see these black ministers and alliances that are supposed to fight being manipulated against their own people.”

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From left: Ministers Gunn (Jerrold Trice) and Fletcher (Wes Frazier) perform in Soul Rep...
From left: Ministers Gunn (Jerrold Trice) and Fletcher (Wes Frazier) perform in Soul Rep Theater Company’s regional premiere of William Jackson Harper’s “Travisville,” a fictional account of Jim Schutze’s Dallas race relations book “The Accommodation.” The play runs at the Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park, not far from some of the events it depicts.(Malcolm Herod)

She argues that Dallas did indeed have a civil rights movement, although it was not necessarily embraced by the city’s most influential black leaders.

Her approach to instruction Travisville is “in your face,” says Bennett-Price. “The bold, brave language that Harper has written is served well by these actors. This is an actor’s play. The dialogue is beautiful.

“Sometimes in your writing you ask, ‘Do I really have to say that?’ You think of the whole race that you want to represent well. These young writers don’t. What I notice about this generation of playwrights is that they don’t pull anything. They’re like, ‘This is what needs to be said, Goddamn.’ And I love that. That’s the kind of work that Soul Rep has always attracted.”

details

Soul Rep Theater Company presents Travisville on Dec. 10-11 and 15-18 at the Margo Jones Theatre, 1121 First Ave. in Fair Park. $25-$30. soulrep.org.

William Jackson Harper is best known for playing Chidi on the NBC sitcom "The good place."...
William Jackson Harper is best known for playing Chidi on the NBC sitcom “The Good Place”. His play, “Travisville,” is a fictional account of Dallas journalist Jim Schutze’s recently republished book, “The Accommodation.” (NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

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