Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Unique Assignment
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Doctor Wee-Woo Show, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, Hairspray, Trouble in Tahiti and Service Provider and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

Pearce Bunting, Kevin Fanshaw,
and James A. Williams

Photo by Rick Spaulding
I was very young when some of the earliest major events of the Civil Rights movement took place, such as the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the integration of Little Rock Central High School, and the Montgomery bus boycott. The first major event I can remember having an awareness of was in 1962 when James Meredith broke the color barrier to become the first African American student enrolled at the University of Mississippi, in the bucolic town of Oxford. Young, naïve and white as I was, I had trouble understanding why people were trying to stop a man from going to college. How could his education hurt them? Then, when I heard a family member say, "If he doesn't want all this trouble, he shouldn't be going where he's not wanted," I was stunned.

James Meredith's battle to get an education at a place where he "wasn't wanted" forms the context of Harrison David Rivers' new play A Unique Assignment, currently having a world premiere run at History Theatre. Meredith's accomplishment had tremendous historic significance and required great courage and fortitude on his part, as the play describes with sharp clarity, particularly as enunciated by James A. Williams, who epitomizes stalwart dignity as Meredith.

The "assignment" of the play's title, however, is not referring to Meredith but to Henry Gallagher, a Minneapolis native who is assigned to lead a United States Army detail designated to provide security for Meredith. Gallagher, who is white, is a lieutenant stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, when his unit gets the call, with no explanation given, to prepare for active duty. This is 1962, in the cauldron of the Cold War, and "active duty" could mean anything. The terrified men are first sent to Tennessee, still without explanation, and then they are finally enlightened, but not much less terrified. Because rioting had broken out on the campus, President Kennedy mobilized troops, their "unique assignment" being to do whatever it takes to protect Meredith, while enabling him to move freely about campus like any other student.

By the time Gallagher and his troops arrive, the worst of the riots had subsided, but tension remains high, and there are still ugly incidents that occasionally erupt in violence. Rivers' play provides an anecdotal account of Gallagher's time in Mississippi, which amounts to about two months before the troops are withdrawn. We see the initial challenge of finding their way from Memphis to Oxford (amazingly, the army had no maps), figuring out how to discreetly provide surveillance on Meredith, dealing with a growing mob turning violent, local press exaggerating the trouble on campus to sell papers, and other episodes in Gallagher's journey.

Gallagher is portrayed at two different ages by two actors. Kevin Fanshaw plays the 23-year-old lieutenant with no experience in an assignment of this kind, working to assert his authority over his men, to navigate what to him was the foreign soil of the deep South, and to maintain cordial, if cool, relations with Meredith–who did not relish being followed by armed guards. Fanshaw, as the younger man, displays a self-deprecating awkwardness regarding his lack of preparation for the job he'd been given, and conveys his growing admiration for Meredith.

Pearce Bunting portrays Gallagher as a 73-year-old, viewing those events in hindsight and acting as a narrator, providing an overview and bridging transitions. Bunting, looking every bit the old-timer in rumpled cardigan and tousled hair (apt costume design is by Meghan Kent), looks back in amazement as he recalls the challenges of that "unique assignment" and the combination of brains, instincts, and luck that enabled the mission to succeed. Through the lens of fifty passing years, he realizes how monumental a thing it was that he was protecting.

Kevin Brown Jr. is the play's fourth cast member, taking on a number of roles as soldiers, Mississippi locals, campus officials, and others, with Williams and Bunting also picking up small roles as ensemble members. The entire cast performs flawlessly, never leaving doubt as to which character they are portraying throughout the play. Director Richard D. Thompson orchestrates their movements and characterizations, coordinated with excellent lighting (Kurt Jung), sound (Katherine Horowitz) and video (Kathy Maxwell) design, that establish place and accelerate or ease up on the degrees of tension.

Williams eloquently presents statements issued by Meredith explaining that his decision to transfer from Jackson State University (a historically Black university) to all-white Ole Miss was triggered by President Kennedy's inaugural address, challenging young people to take actions that would bring about change. In spite of superb qualifications, Meredith's application to the University of Mississippi was initially denied and he worked tirelessly through the courts for two years to earn his place on campus. These and other compelling facets of Meredith's heroic campaign are given in his statements but not given dramatic form.

The play's strongest scene is a conversation between Meredith and Gallagher. Meredith explains to the naïve northerner that he can withstand the abuse hurled at him by white southern racists because he understands that they can't help it. Hatred and racism are passed on from generation to generation, Meredith goes on to say, with youngsters being so deeply indoctrinated–by parents, teachers and ministers–into a world built on white privilege that they truly see righteousness in it and see wrong in those who challenge their beliefs. Gallagher then observes that he never experienced this kind of indoctrination growing up in Minneapolis, where Blacks were far fewer in number and barely existed at all in his south-side neighborhood. He didn't learn to live with racially diverse people, but neither did he learn a perceived need to maintain rigid strictures to keep them apart.

A Unique Assignment would be well served with more scenes like the one cited above, that push Gallagher (and the audience) to recognize ways in which this unique assignment issued over sixty years ago altered their own lives, and not only the lives of African Americans who walked through the door that Meredith opened. We see Gallagher grapple with external concerns like devising the best tactics to protect Meredith but get little sense of the interior grappling that might lead to him moving forward in life differently as a result of the unique assignment.

Still, Rivers' play recreates a powerful chapter of history, seen through a different light. It presents a time of deep divisions in American society, not only between races but between those with vastly different values and understandings of "the American dream." If it is possible to learn from history–and I hold on to the belief that it is– A Unique Assignment has immense pertinence to our nation's current state of affairs. That, and the high caliber of its staging and acting, make it an important addition to our theatre season.

A Unique Assignment runs through April 7, 2024, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit

Playwright: Harrison David Rivers; Director: Richard D. Thompson; Scenic Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Properties Design: Kirby Moore; Costume Design: Meghan Kent; Lighting Design: Kurt Jung; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Rehearsal Stage Manager: Jessica Goldade Swanson; Performance Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Smith.

Cast: Kevin Brown, Jr. (ensemble), Pearce Bunting (Henry Gallagher at 73), Kevin Fanshaw (Henry Gallagher at 23), James A. Williams (James Meredith, ensemble).