In his final years I got to know musician Preston Love Sr. pretty well, or at least well enough to write several stories about him, most of which can be found on this blog. I know his eldest son and namesake, Preston Love Jr., less well. While he didn’t inherit his late father’s ability to play music, though he does sing well, he definitely does share some of the same ebullient, playful personality. Like his old man did, he knows how to work a room. He loves people and being the center of attention. All of which makes him a natural to portray the late civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell. Love’s one-man show about Powell is the subject of the following article I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omahan Preston Love Jr. knows a charismatic figure when he sees one. After all, his late father, musician Preston Love Sr., exuded personality. In apple-not-falling-far-from-the-tree tradition the younger Preston’s put his own magnetic charm to use in corporate America, politics, community organizing, emceeing and gospel singing.
Therefore it’s no surprise the gregarious Love was drawn to do a one-man Chautauqua of his hero, the late charismatic civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In the year he’s performed it Love said the show’s “taken on a life of its own.” He next channels Powell in two free performances: 6 p.m. on Feb. 5 at Creighton University’s Skutt Student Center; 11 a.m. on Feb. 10 at Metropolitan Community College’s South Campus ITC Conference Center. After each show Love fields questions in-character.
Powell’s bigger-than-life presence had its base in Harlem, New York, home to the mega-Abyssinian Baptist Church he pastored. The firebrand leader staged marches, protests and boycotts decades before Martin Luther King Jr. He served 26 years in the U.S. Congress. As chair of the Education and Labor Committee he shepherded through key civil rights legislation during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Love and others gravitated to Powell’s bold ideology, defiant stance and impassioned speech.
“The thing about Adam Clayton Powell that caught our imagination was he was so strong, so confident, so arrogant,” said Love. “He was just someone we looked up to because of what he stood up for. He was really the black Congressman for every black. That was really the role he played. He was our champion, and he stood head and shoulders above anyone else. His was the major voice.”
After studying the man, Love sees “parallels” in their lives as troublemakers. Public struggles with personal demons and a penchant for, as Powell said, “telling it like it is,” alienated them. It makes for good theater.
Powell’s flamboyance courted controversy. Congress sanctioned him in the late ‘60s in the wake of alleged improprieties. Love’s own fall from grace came after managing Jesse Jackson’s ‘84 national presidential campaign, the Rainbow Coalition and Harold Washington’s Chicago mayoral races.
A tendency to step on people’s toes cost Powell with his civil rights brethren just as Love said his own obstinateness makes it “tough” for him.
“He was so strong, so independent, so outspoken, so unpredictable that he was at odds with the big civil rights leaders,” Love said. “They loved him when he did the right thing but they hated him when he took a position way off the deep end. He was never one of the boys, never one of the in-crowd, and they resented that.”
All of which has led to Powell becoming somewhat forgotten.
“He got lost in history because he was such a loner,” Love said, “and so as result there was no place for him to stick, history-wise. There’s nobody that does not respect what he did, but there’s nobody championing him (today).”
Love hopes his show, set during a ‘68 Harlem campaign rally, gives the man his due.
“The performance is the vehicle, it is not the object,” he said. “The object is I want you to have a snapshot of black political-social history at a point in time. More importantly, I want you to have an appreciation for Adam and the major, transactional role he played in civil rights history.”
Upon conceiving the one-man portrayal in late 2007 Love had second thoughts. He’d never acted before. “This is not something I do,” he said. Rather than let the idea die, he put himself on the line by booking performance dates.
“It’s an old technique I use,” Love said, “to set myself up. Then I started the research. It was bigger and harder than I thought. The scariest part was I had done the research but I had no clue how to turn that research into a performance, let alone perform it.”
With the first show looming closer, his muse awoke.
“It came to me one night all at once,” he said. “The whole thing just came like a big gift and laid itself out in my head. Like a mad man I wrote the script and I had a performance. But I didn’t know whether or not I was going to be able to rise to the script — to make this a performance worth seeing, something I’d be proud of.”
Like a politico shaping a platform, Love consulted advisers, including local historians and theater professionals. He tried out the show at colleges. The feedback helped him work out the “rough spots.” The resulting performance is an amalgam of Powell mannerisms, speeches and catch-phrases, including, “Keep the faith baby.” Love hopes his interpretation of Powell’s legacy has legs beyond Omaha.
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