By Jesse Muhammad
If you pass by the Midtown Art Center on La Branch Street in Houston, you probably would only glance at the outside artistic décor and keep going.
I’ve done it–for years.
In fact, I’ve even used the building as a backdrop for photoshoots for some of my past clients. However, I never even thought about researching what the inside of the building is actually used for or if it was even still in use.
So you can imagine my reaction when I was recently invited, via a text message, to attend a play there on October 6. I said to myself, “That venue is actually still in operation?” I accepted the invitation and I am glad I did.
I’ve definitely read up on the history of Booker T. Washington and his work regarding Tuskegee University, however, Vincent Victoria’s play “Mr. Booker T. At The Door” highlighted something I didn’t know much about and it was a theatrical learning experience.
The play examines the moments leading up to Booker T. Washington’s dinner with then President Theodore Roosevelt and his family on the date of October 16, 1901. It goes without saying that back then the only place you’d find Blacks in the White House was in the fields or the kitchen as slaves; so this invitation was unusual.
An upper class Black family in Washington, D.C. eagerly served as hosts of Mr. Washington. Mr. Victoria feels that there hasn’t been enough written about upper class Black families who were thriving on the East Coast during that period.
What struck me the most was that while this family had its fair share of bourgeoisness, they had a revolutionary edge (especially the wife) that caused them to strongly question and challenge Mr. Washington’s motive for even accepting the White House invitation. The acting kept my attention and it helped that the Midtown Art Center is a very small, intimate setting.
While showing admiration for Mr. Washington’s accomplishments and elevating him as a leader above his rival W.E.B. DuBois, climactic arguments ensued over if the dinner with the First Family was truly about the advancement of the Black race or just a potential wasted “party” for Mr. Washington’s self-aggrandizement. From talks of coons to commerce and casting down buckets to buck dancing, both sides desired to challenge what they considered to be flawed thinking.
When the scene shifts to White House preparation, the Black butler and maid were noticeably excited about Mr. Washington’s invitation. However, the wife of President Roosevelt wasn’t shy about questioning his decision to welcome a “n*gger” at their dinner table.
While thought to be the focal point of the play, I found the dinner scene less eventful as what happened before it and the scenes afterwards. The dinner caused uproar among the Southern Whites, created nationwide division and dominated news headlines in such a way that Mrs. Roosevelt plotted on how to change the narrative to make it appear as if Mr. Washington never actually ate dinner with them.
The upper class Black family that welcomed Mr. Washington into their home was even more enraged. The wife referred to him as “Booker Traitor Washington” and declared that “his views are our enemy”.
Prior to this play, I didn’t know much about this dinner taking place, but it confirmed my immediate thoughts at the opening scene: It didn’t amount to much of anything of substance for the advancement of Black people.
And 117 years later, most who have been welcomed to Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t come out any better in advocating for Black people; that includes one of our own who would eventually occupy the Oval Office.
I agree with Mr. Victoria’s closing words that this story deserves to be told. I enjoyed the play and I definitely recommend others to go and see it while it is still premiering.
I am also pledging to do more than drive by the Midtown Art Center and use it at a photo prop. See you there!
[“Mr. Booker T. At The Door” runs until October 16th. The performances are Friday’s and Saturday’s @ 8pm and Sunday’s at 5pm. There will be a Special Performance of the play on Tuesday night October 16th at 7 pm to coincide with the exact 117th anniversary of the famous dinner. Information and tickets are available now at www.banksbrothersproductions.com]