Joseph Mydell as
Paul Laurence Dunbar

Setting the Stage

Mydell's performance clever, inspirational

By Pat Rodabaugh

Joseph Mydell gave a stunning performance to an audience of approximately 200 people gathered in Founders Hall on Feb. 24, when he offered his '"Lyrics of the Hearthside," one of a number of special programs in the Blufton College Artist Series.

Mydell's dramatic interpretation of the poem, prose and songs of Paul Laurence Dunbar required an astonishing amount of memorization and mandated a supreme sense of timing, which the actor has mastered. For me, the most impressive aspect of Mydell's performance was his obvious empathy with Dunbar. For a span of about two hours, I could believe he was Paul Laurence Dunbar.

A GRADUATE OF THE NEW YORK University's School of the Arts, where his teachers included Lloyd Richards and Olympia Dukakis, Mydell has an impressive list of theatrical endeavors to his credit. This is One performer who has "paid his dues." He is a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford on Avon and London. In America, he has performed at the Circle Repertory Company in New York and the New York Shakespeare Festival and he has toured for the National Endowment for the Arts Humanities Series. Mydell has appeared with the Lincoln Center Repertory and the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Television appearances include major roles in "The March," the CBS mini-series "Shadow on the Sun" with Stephanie Powers, and the Hallmark presentation "My Africa."

Recent theatre credits include a successful run in London's West End with Steve Guttenburg in the acclaimed production "The Boys Next Door" and the title role in Brecht's "The Life of Galileo."

Mydell's "Lyrics of the Hearthside" won two awards at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival (including Best One Man Show) and after seeing his performance at Blufton College, I am not surprised.

Act One (Dunbar the Performer) introduces the Ohio-born writer/poet/actors works in both dialect and standard English. The recitations begin with slow, almost deliberate undertones of rhyme and rhythm. Mydell's voice has a distinctive resonant quality that soothes the ear and beckons to the audience to pay close attention.

The performance unfolds slowly; we see the bits and pieces of a personality coming together to shape and mold the contours of a human form. While we observe from the silent safety of our seats, the form takes on the features of a man of letters with a wild desire to create great literature and introduce new concepts to a growing nation. Dunbar's fierce determination to capture the essence of life in the South (and especially on the plantation) for the nineteenth century black population is evident in Mydell's interpretation of his poetry.

"Plantation Life" and "The War" were staged perfectly for an intimate theatre setting. Mydell's facial expressions are critical to the total experience of his recitations. Soft lighting and the play of shadows across his face were particularly effective and poignant.

Act two (Dunbar the Man) picks up speed and races through Dunbar's brief adult life. The second half of the show, although more theatrically contrived, I believe, than the first, elicited more emotional responses from the audience. I found Mydell's structuring of Dunbar's letters into an historic overview of his relationships to be a delightfully brilliant touch. Sprinkling touches of song and dance in between the letters adds just the right balance to the total performance.

"Alice Ruth Moore," "On Emancipation Day," and "Lil'l Gal" were all beautifully performed. Mydell's performance was my first introduction to Dunbar's work but, after hearing these particular pieces, I know I will have to read more of his poetry. He is said to be one of the foremost black writers of his time, publishing four volumes of poetry, four novels, various prose works and lyrics to many popular songs.

EVERY GOOD PERFORMER I'VE ever observed has left some special mark or characteristic in my memory bank. In the case of Joseph Mydell, it is his hands. Mydell's hands are incredibly expressive and graceful; like a dancer's hands. When he struts and strides with his walking stick, the cane becomes an extension of the long, slender fingers. To emphasize a point, to elaborate on an idea or just to point at a random member of the audience during a humorous point in his recitation, Mydell's hands make magical movements about his head, shoulders, and trunk.

If you missed Joseph Mydell's clever and stimulating performance, my brief review will not do him justice. He provided us with a thoroughly entertaining evening.