Playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey has spent a great deal of time with The Negro Motorist Green Book, the essential directory for African Americans navigating the U.S. during Jim Crow.
Published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966, the Green Book provided a list of restaurants, hotels, and other places that were friendly to black travelers. Ramsey spent years researching the travel guide, writing a children’s book as well as a play, The Green Book, which makes its regional premiere Jan. 23 at the Ensemble Theatre.
Ramsey’s play, which tells the story of a Missouri family that opens its home to African American travelers, was first produced in Atlanta. It has since seen productions in Louisville, Kentucky, and Chicago, as well as readings in New York City and D.C.
But the Ensemble, says Ramsey, has worked with the material on a whole different level.
“They’ve made it a much sounder play,” the playwright says from his home in New York City as sirens wail in the background. “You’re always revising, always wanting to make it better. I think this is it—this is really what I want this to be."
Ramsey says he wanted his play—which has no relation to the 2019 Academy Award-winning movie—to weave together multiple perspectives that described the realities of living in a Jim Crow world. The play takes place over a weekend when the hosts, a highly educated couple and their daughter, take in an Army veteran and his wife, who need a place to stay. They’re also visited by a man selling ads for The Negro Motorist Green Book and Holocaust survivor, who’s come for reasons of his own.
“I set the play in a home because I wanted to show what it was like to accept families at all times of the day and night,” Ramsey says. “And I liked the idea of multiple generations; the daughter of the homeowners is about to go off to college. Her parents are a generation older than her. The visitors are different generations and from different places.”
More than that, however, he wanted the story of how people navigated racist laws and the daily prejudices they endured to resonate across ethnicities and religions. With the arrival of the Holocaust survivor, the conversation about what prejudice looks like is expanded. Ramsey points out that in the Civil Rights era, Jews, who faced discrimination in the form of anti-Semitism, were allies for African Americans.
“Black, white, rich, poor, all these people came together to battle injustice and bring about change,” he says. “And I wanted people—especially young people who might see the show—to see how people can all work toward a common cause. And while this show deals with color and religion, I want people to be able to think about other forms of discrimination, whether it’s body shaming or ability or someone’s socioeconomic [background].”
While The Green Book deals with weighty matters, Ramsey believes the story is ultimately uplifting.
“Everybody can do something,” he says. “And during this period of history, many of them did. Some opened their homes; others registered people to vote. People did what they could. I think this is really a story that touches everyone.”
Runs Jan. 23–Feb. 23 at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St. Tickets start at $26. More info and tickets at ensemblehouston.com.