Play looks back at time of black and Jewish struggles

By Hugh Iglarsh, Special to Chicago Jewish News

The original Green Book, the subject of Calvin Ramsey’s play now on stage at Chicago Dramatists, was a basic, cheaply bound guidebook for African-American drivers in the middle years of the twentieth century, listing places where they could refuel, sleep and eat without undue risk to their safety or dignity.

But the book was more than a black people’s travel guide. It was community-driven, collective survival tool at a time when Jim Crow was the norm everywhere, not just the South. The network of listed families who agreed to open their doors to strangers was a lifeline for blacks during the Great Migration northward, and it was built on a solid foundation of generosity, historical awareness and social connection.

Much the same could be said of the playwright’s artistic process and purpose.  We spoke in a café in Evanston, near where the New York-based writer was staying as he oversaw the mounting of his newly revised work by Pegasus Theatre and ShPIeL, Chicago’s Jewish theater company. The play – which involves among other things the 1950s-era cross-country journey of a Holocaust survivor to visit a dying black man who took some of the first photographs of the concentration camps – is a recollection of a time of black and Jewish unity on the issue of civil rights, as well as an attempt to reconnect and regroup in the face of today’s social and political challenges and struggles.

“Growing up in the 1950s, I didn’t know about the Green Book,” says Ramsey, who was born in Baltimore and raised partly on his grandfather’s farm in North Carolina. “The two places were only four hours apart, so we packed food and went in the woods. I thought everyone did that. But that’s how my parents tried to protect us.”

He didn’t find out about the Green Book – named after Victor Green, the Harlem-based letter carrier who, with his wife Alma, published the book for three decades – until 2001, when an acquaintance told him about it in Atlanta, where he was then living. Ramsey was at that time on the Library Board at Emory University and had access to the school’s rare books collection, which included valuable editions of the Green Book. Holding a copy of the guidebook, Ramsey sensed the wealth of stories it contained.

The moment rekindled his old ambition of being a writer – a dream deferred for 25 years, during which time he had supported his family by selling insurance, but never abandoned.

A literary person himself, Ramsey focused on a man from an earlier generation who produced a humble book that would aid and influence many thousands of his fellow African-Americans. While Victor Hugo Green is not a character in the play, his and his wife’s presence animates it. Equipped only with an eighth-grade education, a good idea and an amazing web of contacts, Green created a publishing phenomenon and a public service, one that deserves to be remembered.

“With black letter carriers mainly delivering to black neighborhoods, because you couldn’t go to a white person’s front door, Victor’s fellow postal workers were in a position to screen people,” says Ramsey. “That’s how the guide grew after it started in 1936.”

Because there were few black-owned hotels or restaurants at the time, the guide listed mainly so-called “tourist homes,” the private residences of ordinary folks. They were the forerunners of today’s Airbnb, with one key difference: the owners would charge little or nothing for their hospitality.  “It was something the black community needed,” notes Ramsey. “There weren’t even phone numbers – people would just show up.”

Green got the idea from a similar-but-different guidebook for Jews listing both kosher eateries and non-restricted hotels, a pressing concern in an era when many hostelries and other settings were closed to Jews.

“Green’s dream was to one day stop publishing his book, because it was no longer needed,” says Ramsey. But it outlived Green, who died in 1960. It continued for a few years under Alma’s editorship, fading away only after passage of the federal anti-segregation Civil Rights Act of 1964. For many of those years, according to Ramsey, the Green Book was produced by a Jewish printer named Gleaner, who took the job after other printers refused it. The guidebook was distributed through churches, Masonic lodges, unions and (surprisingly) Esso service stations – because, Ramsey speculates in one of many anecdotal grace notes sprinkled through our conversation – Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller’s wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller came from an abolitionist family.

As blacks and Jews converged in the making of the actual Green Book, so do they in the play. The character of Jacob Levinsky, the victim of Nazi ideology, sees the analogy between Old World fascism and New World racism, and so refuses to stay at any lodging place that practices discrimination. His sojourn with the Davis family in Missouri, whose home is listed in the Green Book, creates tension with a black Green Book salesman, who sees any mingling of the races – even on the part of liberal whites patronizing black-owned businesses – as the beginning of the end of his livelihood and world. Although the Green Book is gone, the spiky and complex issues and questions raised by its legacy are not.

“People ask me why I have a Jewish character in a black play,” says Ramsey. “Growing up partly in Baltimore, Jews were always part of my life. My job as a child – one of eight – was to go to the grocery store and pick up food for the family. There were four Jewish-owned shops near us, one on each corner. The merchants were always so nice to me, and I’ve never forgotten it. I wanted to honor them.”

Since it was conceived in 2001, the play has undergone readings and performances in places ranging from Valdez, Alaska to Atlanta to Yale University to Washington, D.C. (where Julian Bond read a part). But the Jacob character remained a problem, according to Ramsey: “I was stepping out of my comfort zone – not being Jewish myself, there are certain beats I don’t know.” It was his collaboration with David Chack, ShPIeL’s artistic director and the play’s co-producer, that helped Ramsey, in his words, bring feeling to the character.

“[Chack] has been remarkable,” Ramsey says, “not only in terms of his great knowledge of theater and history, but also in bringing the people together to make this special production happen.” Those people include director Ilesa Duncan (also the producing artistic director at Pegasus) and script dramaturg Joan Mazzonelli of ShPIel.

“I’m impressed with the cast, and I’m honored that Chicago Dramatists and Pegasus and Joan and the others took on my play,” says Ramsey. “After the rewrite, it feels brand new. The earlier readings and stagings were successful, but we’ve taken the play to a new level.”

With the production of The Green Book, Ramsey’s life has come full circle. As a young man, he moved to Los Angeles, joining the army of wannabe screenwriters. “Back then, I wasn’t writing from the heart,” he says ruefully. “I was trying to sell what was selling. But it’s not a good idea – you sell yourself short.”

It was right after 9/11, with its intimations of fate and mortality, that Ramsey decided to give writing another try. This time, his work – which include a range of plays and books on the twentieth-century black experience – come very much from the heart.

“I wanted to show the history of the black and Jewish communities working together. If it weren’t for the Jewish community, the civil rights movement would not have had the success it did – but young people today know little of this history. I want to get them to see, hear and feel what it’s like for people to work together in all kinds of ways that aren’t necessarily well publicized.”

The Green Book was a pragmatic, low-key, seemingly unheroic response to a bad situation. But as Ramsey observes, it was also about “people having love for each other and taking care of their own. The Green Book is the story of a man with an eighth-grade education who reached out to people he’d never met to help them. There are more acts of kindness like this on a daily basis than killings. We need to shine more of a light on that.”

Pegasus Theatre Chicago, in association with ShPIeL Performing Identity, presents the Chicago premiere of ‘The Green Book,’ at Pegasus’s resident home Chicago Dramatists, 765 N. Aberdeen. The performance schedule is Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. with added Sunday 6 p.m. performances. Through April 1. Tickets are $18 – $30 and are available at PegasusTheatreChicago.org. Discounts available for groups of ten or more. For tickets, call 312-423-6612.

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