'The Lion and the Fox' makes a strong case at Banneker-Douglas Museum ANNE ARUNDEL DIVERSIONS

January 29, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

Acts of conscience can make you very unpopular.

They didn't exactly line up in ancient Thebes to "high five" Antigone, and Thomas Becket's well-ventilated cassock is testimony to the fact that kings among us are seldom amused by those who would elevate the law of conscience over a nice, simple, autocratic decree.

A venerable Annapolitan named Walter Mills knows all about the loneliness of a righteous cause, for in 1947 he was a very unpopular man. The white Anne Arundel County power structure, particularly Superintendent of Schools George Fox, was unhappy with this insistent principal of old Bates Middle School who had the temerity to mount a legal challenge to the inequitable pay scale for black and white educators then in force. His black colleagues deserted him too, fearful for their jobs and upset by boat rocking.

But, as playwright and director T. G. Cooper shows us in "The Lion and the Fox," his interesting, historically valuable dramatization of Mr. Mills' groundbreaking lawsuit, Walter Mills did not have to fight alone. Born under the astrological sign of Leo, Mills roared back against injustice by enlisting the aid of the legendary Thurgood Marshall, the lion of all lions in the legal battle for racial equality.

Their courtroom victory, a leonine triumph over Superintendent Fox, provides the characters and plot for Mr. Cooper's hour-long, one-act play, which will be performed tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at the Banneker-Douglas Museum on Franklin Street in Annapolis.

Several factors make "The Lion and the Fox" a must-see for this weekend.

Indeed, the sheer appropriateness of it is quite striking.

The play is certainly a timely tribute to the late Mr. Marshall, the modern-day Joshua whose skills as an advocate caused Jim Crow's walls to come a-tumblin' down.

As we are poised to enter Black History Month, "The Lion and the Fox" offers a valuable opportunity to connect with those indomitable souls who put so much on the line so America could realize its better self.

And, metaphysics and iconography aside, "The Lion and the Fox" just happens to be a very entertaining play. At times it gets a bit talky (from lawyers you don't expect long silences, I guess), but it is an involving piece of theater that sports several nice performances.

Tony Spencer's Walter Mills is an ingratiating, pensive man, agonizing over a battle he knows he shouldn't have to fight, but must.

Kenneth Daughtery is an energetic Thurgood Marshall, whose passionate indignation clearly fuels his courtroom acumen.

Cooper's most interesting character is, perhaps, Noah Hillman (Kurt Dornheim), the distinguished Annapolis attorney who finds himself on the wrong end of a moral dilemma in a case he doesn't mind losing. A lawyer with a conscience -- who'd a thunk it! I can continue to park in his garage with a clear conscience.

John Cleveland conveys the moral delinquency of the superintendent's position with just enough sleaze to keep things interesting, and Vincent Simms is quite the weasel as Muscid Brown, a composite character representing the colleagues who hung Mills out to dry by withdrawing their support.

As Walter Mills sits in the courtroom and ponders his fate, he hears great gospel songs and spirituals from which he draws support. They are wonderfully sung by Betsy Pindell of Asbury Methodist Church.

With a gifted, inspiring singer like Ms. Pindell on hand, Walter, Thurgood and Joshua can't help but get a running start on those walls.

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