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

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Colleen Hayes
William Jackson Harper is best known for playing Chidi in the NBC sitcom "The Good Place." His play, "Travisville," is a fictionalized account of Dallas journalist Jim Schutze’s recently reissued book "The Accommodation."

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A play inspired by racism in Dallas in the 1950s and ‘60s has finally landed here.

It’s about time, said the director, Guinea Bennett-Price, co-founder of Soul Rep Theatre Company. Soul Rep is presenting 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 fictionalized 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 be comfortable.’ That’s the last thing we’re thinking about,” Bennett-Price said in a phone interview.

“It’s uncomfortable for everyone, 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 gonna be hard for us to hear [white characters] Honeycutt or Gillette be honest … These are the things that because we were segregated, we didn’t get to hear each other say. Now we do. Now we’re in a space in history where we can stomach it.”

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Malcolm Herod
Wes Frazier (front), who stars as Minister Fletcher, is joined by the rest of the cast of Soul Rep Theatre Company's "Travisville."

"Travisville," written in 2018 by actor and first-time playwright William Jackson Harper, is a fictionalized account of Dallas journalist Jim Schutze’s recently reissued book, "The Accommodation." Many Dallas residents have been reading 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 hard to get ahold of. It chronicled bombings 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 the white business and political establishment and the city’s leading Black pastors to keep the peace at almost any cost.

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Malcolm Herod
From left: Ministers Gunn (Jerrold Trice) and Fletcher (Wes Frazier) appear in Soul Rep Theatre Company's regional premiere of William Jackson Harper's "Travisville," a fictionalized account of Jim Schutze's Dallas race relations book "The Accommodation." The play is running at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, not far from some of the events it depicts.

"The Accommodation" argues that this deal meant the civil rights movement bypassed Dallas.

In "Travisville," Dallas native Harper, who’s best known for his role as the philosopher Chidi Anagonye in the NBC sitcom "The Good Place," avoids naming names in the hopes of universalizing the story.

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. To make the project happen, they need 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 being squeezed 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 room for a parking lot.

In the play, four Black church leaders debate and struggle over these types of accommodations. In 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.

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Malcolm Herod
Tyler Lang (from left) stars as Zeke Phillips and Wes Frazier as Minister Fletcher in Soul Rep Theatre Company's production of Dallas native William Jackson Harper's "Travisville."

"Travisville" is running at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. In the 1940s, Jones started the country’s first professional regional theater company. In a 1953 co-production with a Black troupe, it welcomed the first racially mixed theater audience in Dallas.

Born and raised in Dallas, Bennett-Price said she had “front-row knowledge” of redlining practices that made it more difficult 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 1970s federal desegregation order turned the school into an arts magnet.

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Courtesy of Soul Rep Theatre Company
Guinea Bennett-Price is the director of Soul Rep Theatre Company's production of "Travisville."

“Black people were made to feel as if they had a responsibility in calming things. Black ministers were asked to be the mediators between city government and the Black community, to keep cool heads and keep the National Guard out of Dallas,” Bennett-Price said. “The play grapples with this idea that Dallas didn’t have a civil rights movement, by design. We get to see who were the players in place to keep it from happening. We see these Black ministers and alliances having to fight being manipulated against their own people.”

She argues that Dallas did, in fact, have a civil rights movement, though it wasn’t necessarily embraced by the city’s most influential Black leaders.

Her approach to directing "Travisville" is “in your face,” Bennett-Price said. “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, ‘Can I really say that?’ You think about the entire race that you want to represent well. These young writers aren’t doing that. What I’m noticing with this generation of playwrights is that they pull no punches. They’re like, ‘This is what needs to be said, damn it.’ And I love that. That is the kind of work that Soul Rep has always gravitated toward.”

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

Arts Access is a partnership between KERA and The Dallas Morning News that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. KERA and The News retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Manuel Mendoza is a freelance writer and a former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.