Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Performance offers poignant reflection of West Chester native and civil rights leader

06/20/2023 03:27PM ● By Richard Gaw

Photo by Richard L. Gaw                    Actors David Watkins and Sydney Banks delivered a stunning performance of Illuminating Bayard Rustin at The Kennett Flash on June 18, as part of the Juneteenth celebration held this past weekend in Chester County. The performance was produced by People’s Light and Theatre.


By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer 

Throughout last weekend, along walking tours and in venues large and small throughout southern Chester County, the region was teeming with events and activities related to the Juneteenth celebration. From field trips to food to fashion to fufu cocktails, it was a constant acknowledgement of an event that occurred 158 years ago that serves as a touchstone for African American history.

In one of the area’s most prominent centers for music, however, there was acknowledgement of another kind, one that paid a tribute to one of Chester County’s most prominent sons, in music and the spoken word.

Illuminating Bayard Rustin, produced by People’s Light and Theatre and starring David Watkins and Sydney Banks, was performed on June 18 to an intimate and appreciative audience at The Kennett Flash. The 30-minute performance provided a stirring and informative look into Rustin’s life as an African American activist, civil rights leader and advocate for civil rights, nonviolence and gay rights.

Born in West Chester in 1912 and educated at a school on Gay Street, Rustin later rose to prominence through his influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to call for nonviolent means of protest against discrimination, as well as his work in helping to form the Montgomery bus boycott. As illuminated throughout the performance, Rustin was often persecuted for being a homosexual, but it did not prevent him from speaking out against laws that denied gay people essential human rights.  

During the 1970s and 1980s, Rustin served on many humanitarian missions that included providing aid to refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. At the time of his death in 1987, Rustin was on a humanitarian mission in Haiti, and in 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Originally a full-length play written by Steve Broadnax III that premiered in 2019, Illuminating Bayard Rustin is now a touring production offered by People’s Light.

“People’s Light has a vested interest in civic discourse and uncovering untold stories, and I think Bayard Rustin has a story that needs to be told,” said Andrew Watring, People’s Light’s creative director of community programs. “Too often, communities do not tell the stories of those people who have a long lineage of bringing light and life and love to their own stories.

“Bayard Rustin is a case study in that. The reason that he has largely been erased from much of our history had to do not only with his sexuality but his political views and how they were weaponized against him, but using vehicles like this to tell his story provides a platform for others to consider their own stories as valid and vitally important.”

“Bayard Rustin had all of these influences that shape the activist, the world citizen, the pacifist and the gay icon – all of these things that contribute to who we are, and we do a disservice when we only focus on one aspect of his upbringing,” said Penny Washington, who has served as an historical consultant to the production. “My work with the theater is to look at him in a more total and holistic way.”

The Kennett Flash performance served as one of many Juneteenth stopping points in a calendar that also included a “Fashioning Freedom” showcase at Longwood Gardens; a Juneteenth dedication at Anson B. Nixon Park; a “Freedom’s Table” dinner at Lincoln University; several tours of Kennett Square, which has been historically considered as a pioneering community in the Undergound Railroad movement; and an after party held at The Kennett Creamery.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].