Among the most remarkable things about Martin R. Delany is that his many accomplishments are too little known today -- especially in Pittsburgh, where he spent his early adult years. Born into slavery in 1812, in what's now West Virginia, in his "Pittsburgh years" (1831-56) this multifaceted author and intellectual became the city's first African-American doctor; married and raised a large family; started a couple of the nation's first African-American newspapers; and racked up enough experiences for several lifetimes.
(There would be several more lifetimes' worth: In 1865, Dr. Delany became Major Delany, the first commissioned black field officer in the U.S. Army, and after the Civil War was prominent in Reconstruction politics in South Carolina. For a full story, see www.libraries.wvu.edu/delany/home.htm. And, no, he's apparently no relation to the renowned African-American science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany.)
There's no shortage of material for the equally remarkable Wali Jamal in his one-man show, Martin R. Delany: The Pittsburgh Years, which he wrote and performs. Starting as a coming-of-age story, the History's Flipside production looks fondly at the early U.S. frontier and the nascent industrial Pittsburgh. But as Delany matures, his vision loses its rosiness, and the reality of race relations and slavery laws sink in emotionally as well as intellectually. In the intimacy of the Pittsburgh Playwrights theater space, this hard reality is conveyed to the audience as though by osmosis.
The artificiality of the conventional one-person show is ameliorated by Jamal's easy charm as the young Delany, countered by the force of his anger in later years. But the brightest spots in the play are recitations from the good doctor's own writings -- especially his poems, but also letters, speeches, newspaper articles and his major treatises on race -- which whet but don't sate the appetite. Director Marci Woodruff has culled a workable, credible and enjoyable show about a Pittsburgher well worth knowing. Yes, there's a little history lesson in there, too, but the larger story is about a particular life that could not be limited by the restraints of history.
Martin R. Delany: The Pittsburgh Years continues through Feb 28. History's Flipside at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org
- Local hero: Wali Jamal plays Pittsburgh's 19th-century Renaissance man, Martin R. Delany, for History's Flipside.