Moodie notes that his script “. . . is not the real Elijah McCoy. This is fiction. . . not a history lesson.” So, with that point taken, how much of the story is “true” and how much is a product of imagination ceases to matter. As the saying goes, “When the truth becomes the legend, print the legend.” McCoy’s story is more than worthy of a dramatic rendition. The play begins with McCoy’s birth and his mother’s death in Colchester, Upper Canada. His father George (Antonio Fargas), an escaped slave, is an illiterate farmer, but he commands respect by the force of his dignity and presence. He and a woman he hires to help with the boy, Nanny Hubbard (Sharisa Watley) who becomes a second mother to Elijah, (Chauncey Thomas), cultivate the boy’s brilliant mind and make sacrifices to send him to university in Edinburgh, Scotland when the time comes.
Thomas plays both a little boy and a young man at college, although his grammar school classmates tend to taunt him because he’s smart. His fellow university students play a trick on him as soon as he arrives that nearly gets him in trouble with the formidable professor William Rankine (Alan Knoll, whose Scottish burr is thick as the Stone of Scone) on his very first day. (NOTE: the parts of the other children, students and many others not all cited here, are essayed by Knoll and Whit Reichert. Reichert is fine in his serious parts and funny in his lighter ones. He and Knoll sometimes seem like an old-fashioned comedy team. Knoll’s roles are nearly all comic and he is often hilarious, if occasionally hammy.) By the time McCoy graduates, Rankine is a friend and mentor. When the young man returns to Colchester, the role is assumed by Ka’ramuu Kush, and Thomas “fades away,” but he, too, will return as other characters.
To his father’s and Nanny’s disappointment, McCoy tells them he will be moving to Michigan. He is already patenting his inventions, and he needs to seek out manufacturers to whom he can sell them because he lacks the capital to do it himself. At first, the only work he can find is stoking the engines he’s trying to re-invent. Knoll has a funny bit as “Mrs. Elenora Lloyd,” a disgruntled passenger who gets off the train to find out why it stops so often. McCoy soon finds a wife, Ann Elizabeth (Monica Parks) and best friend Don Bogie (Thomas). She is strong and supportive and Don Bogie (he goes by both names) is the first to approach a pair of white businessmen (Knoll and Reicher) with a working model of McCoy’s big idea. The inventor himself runs into bigotry, especially from a southern-born owner (Knoll) of a company he seeks out to support his work, but he ends up working for the more reasonable manager of the same company (Reichert) when the ownership changes. It isn’t until late in his life that his inventions (57 patents worth, most involving lubrication but also a folding ironing board and lawn sprinkler) are marketed through the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company.
The play broadens McCoy’s story, adding incidents and playing with time. For example, he and his second wife (Watley) had been married 35 years in real life when a life-changing car accident occurred. They weren’t young marrieds with a baby on the way as depicted by Moodie, but of course it is more dramatic the playwright’s way. I mention this particular incident because it is representative of the clever, sometimes magical staging the playwright has provided for his piece: The couple is driving along talking, then it is clear something is happening but we’re not immediately sure what. When we realize it’s an accident, we have to watch it play out, hoping that what we’re seeing isn’t what is obviously happening. It’s worth noting here that this play has no “director,” per se, the play is “staged” by Tracy D. Holliway-Wiggins based on Moodie’s original plan and, I believe, executed very well by her. Holliway-Wiggins is also the stage manager.
One of the basic tenets of thermodynamics is that matter, when changed, reserves its essential character as its original self; e.g., when water becomes steam, it is still water. The fact that when people die in the play, they exit carrying a bowl of water represents this theory. But water is also a pervasive symbol as the source and sustainer of life, and of the cleansing of the soul’s sins as shown when George McCoy performs a kind of post-mortem baptism on himself to expiate his guilt for letting baby Elijah cry himself to sleep because otherwise, the father feared the child would never become a man.
Another highly symbolic principle referenced repeatedly is “entropy”; which the Scottish professor Rankine calls “the left hand and the right hand of God” because it is ultimately used as both a measure of reversibility and irreversibility, which here stands for life or death. Of course when Elijah tells his father of theories like these, his father effectively disowns him for a while, angry at what he perceives as his son’s disrespecting God. The elder McCoy is a true believer and his scientifically-oriented offspring doesn’t see how God fits into the equation: a common source of parent-child conflict throughout time.
Act I of The Real McCoy is brilliant. The clever set incorporates wooden models of an engine, oil barrel, wheels and other mechanical objects associated with McCoy’s work. Upstage rear is a large leaning flat with two crossed beams in front of it supported by the framework upon which hang the train parts. There is an opening here used to enter and exit the stage. Common objects may be cobbled together to represent both static and living things; for example, a car is a couple of crates and a horse is depicted with a broom for the mane, a mop for the tail, and a cloth draped over their handles for the body. And it really does evoke the idea of “horse.” Such a design isn’t just for the sake of cleverness; it is representative of the guiding principle that informs this play: a theory is a suggestion that takes shape in the mind’s eye. Something doesn’t have to be exact to be real. Alex Van Blommestein is credited with the set which is greatly enhanced by Mark Wilson’s lights as they play over the edifice, indicating times of day, projecting faint images of early trains, even illustrating the characters’ moods. Robin Weatherall’s sound and Jennifer Krajicek’s costumes are top-notch.
Act II brings some confusion about McCoy’s financial circumstances and slows things down a bit too much for my taste, but it is still a fascinating show, made more so by the quality of the actors’ work. There isn’t a weak performance up there, although Kush and Thomas stood out to me. Kush, just off the title role in Pericles, gets to show off his skill at another kind of acting entirely, and he is excellent. Thomas seems equally comfortable as a six-year-old boy and a down-at-heels, washed up drunk. He is amazingly versatile. Monica Parks is noteworthy all her incarnations, and Whatley does well too, though she seems a bit young for a few of the characters she plays.
Whether Elijah McCoy was the inspiration for the famous title phrase ultimately proves irrelevant as we are witness to the invention of a life that draws us in and, for the most part, holds onto us for the duration of the play. This is a special production, and I hope its audience grows.
The Real McCoy is at the Black Rep through April 10. You may call 314-534-3807 or visit www.theblackrep.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT