Role of a lifetime: Retired KU professor revives one-man William Allen White play
When “The Sage of Emporia,” a one-man show depicting the twilight years of celebrated editor William Allen White, premiered at Kansas University’s Swarthout Recital Hall in March 1981, its star, Jack Wright, had to spend four hours in the makeup chair in order to convincingly portray the 74-year-old Kansas icon.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, Wright jokes, and the process takes about four minutes.
“Well, I’m built a lot like him,” admits Wright, referring to White’s short and stocky physique. “But I think it’s been a gradual blending of the two personalities.”
Wright, a retired KU professor of theater, has played White intermittently for more than 30 years now. Sometimes, his audiences extended beyond Kansas’ borders, with gigs in places like New Mexico, Colorado and Ohio.
By his count, he’s logged about 15 performances during that time, though most — with the exception of a full-length show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., back in the early 1980s — have only been excerpts, often leaving out the first half of the play.
If you go
“The Sage of Emporia” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Lied Center Pavilion, 1600 Stewart Drive. Tickets cost $25 for adults and $14 for youths and students, and can be purchased at the Lied Center ticket office or lied.ku.edu.
Next weekend, Wright will stage a revival of the original “The Sage of Emporia” with performances Friday and Saturday at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive.
Based on “The Autobiography of William Allen White,” the play visits the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor in his Emporia living room, reading old newspaper clippings and reminiscing with the audience.
As with his first performance in 1981, Wright says he doesn’t want to merely parrot the Kansas icon. Instead, he’s offering up his own interpretation of White, which he admits has evolved over the years with him.
“One of the things I feel strongly about with this play is that I’m not doing an exact impersonation of William Allen White,” Wright says. “The thing about him that has captured me, and I think captures audiences hopefully, is his sense of joy — his absolute love for writing and love for the people of Kansas.”
When playwright Henry C. Haskell first approached him about the role, Wright, then artistic director of theater at KU, didn’t know much about the famed newspaperman, aside from the fact that the university’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, which he passed by a few times as a graduate student, Ph.D. candidate and later as KU faculty, bears his name.
When he landed the part, Wright began an extensive research process that took him 80 miles southeast to Emporia, where White owned and edited the Emporia Gazette for nearly 50 years. There, he sat at White’s newsroom desk and met with White’s daughter-in-law, Katherine White, at the family’s Red Rocks house.
“She was very helpful in getting me prepared for the start of that role,” he recalls of Katherine, who shared some of her father-in-law’s mannerisms, papers and voice recordings with Wright.
Katherine also lent him a number of White’s personal items — including his rimless spectacles, a couple of bow ties, and a large, black briefcase resembling a doctor’s satchel — that remain with Wright to this day.
He stores the antiques safely at home, pulling them out every now and then for performances.
“It helps me feel his presence,” Wright says.
White first emerged on the national political scene in 1896 with “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” The editorial criticized Populist leaders for allowing the state to slip into economic stagnation, and established White as a spokesman for small-town, Midwestern ideals.
His outspoken nature, which culminated in three Pulitzer Prizes, earned him the respect of some of the period’s most revered politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, with whom White helped found the Bull-Moose Party in 1912.
Several presidents, Roosevelt among them, visited White at his log cabin in Colorado, at home in Emporia and even here in Lawrence, Wright says.
Despite the famous friends and national accolades, White remained in Emporia and at the Gazette — angered by the Ku Klux Klan’s emergence in the state, he made an unsuccessful run at the governorship in 1924, but still managed to run the Klan out of the Emporia area, Wright says — until his dying days.
“A lot of people tried to persuade him to move to New York, to try to make more of a ‘success’ of himself. But he was, in his heart, a country boy,” Wright says. “He loved the people of Emporia and the county. He wanted to reflect them and their views. And frankly, that’s what attracted all these presidents and political figures to Emporia and to William Allen White — he spoke his mind.”
After more than three decades playing the small-town editor, that sense of Kansas pride has rubbed off on Wright, who says the role has been hugely influential in his life.
After all, the Ohio native has lived the majority of his adult life in Lawrence, returning to KU after earning his Ph.D. and spending eight years teaching at University of Texas and University of Oklahoma.
Wright retired in 2011 after 35 years with KU’s theater department — a move that he says has given him more time to devote to projects such as “The Sage of Emporia.”
He’s just a few years short of 74, the age at which White is depicted in the play. But with age comes wisdom, says Wright, who now finds he’s more “comfortable” in the White role than he was at 38 when the play premiered.
“At 72, it’s a little harder to have the lines stay with you,” Wright admits. “But I do it, I guess, because the man is so full of joy. And if I can share my interpretation of him with audiences as long as I seem to enjoy that, I’ll probably keep doing it.”