Traveling a lonely road in Ramsey's ‘Green Book'

In the opening scene of Calvin Alexander Ramsey's play "The Green Book," we meet a man powerful enough to rib Langston Hughes for being forgetful.

Hughes may have been famous in his time, but he still needed to know where black people were welcome when they traveled.

He might have placed a personal call to Victor H. Green, author of a series of guide books referred to as "The Green Book," the source material for Ramsey's drama making its world premiere at Balzer Theater in Atlanta.

For such an influential man, it’s likely the play will be the first time audiences have heard of Green and his momentous yet nearly forgotten contribution to African-American history.

From 1936 to 1964, the year of the Civil Rights Act, Green published an indispensable travel guide for black motorists in the Jim Crow era. The guide was updated every year, designed to “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties or embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

It was a directory of hotels, beauty and barber shops, restaurants, nightclubs and gas stations. But it was the “tourist homes” that fascinated Ramsey enough to be the setting for the play.

In smaller towns especially, some addresses listed in the book were private homes where families would host and feed travelers, usually for free.

Green’s guide was a practical vacation tour book, with happy photos of beaches and ads for shiny new automobiles. Yet it wouldn’t have existed without racial intolerance and segregation.

The strange intersection of commerce and prejudice is the creative heart of the play, battled out between an uncommon boarder in one of the "tourist homes" and a field sales rep for "The Green Book." Barry Stewart Mann and Neal A. Ghant portray these adversaries in poignantly tense scenes reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's "The Sunset Limited."

Theatrical Outfit’s production is the first full staging of "The Green Book," though readings and one-night performances, including one last year with former NAACP head Julian Bond portraying Green, have been popping up in the past few years.

The debut at Balzer Theater has as much impact in the journey of the play as the numerous historical touchstones that dance through Ramsey’s dialogue. Balzer is the former site of Herren’s, Atlanta’s first restaurant to voluntarily desegregate in 1962.

“This likely would have been a stop listed in ‘The Green Book,' ” Ramsey said after a rehearsal Tuesday.

As a writer, Ramsey gravitates toward arcane areas of history, usually inspired by rare memorabilia. He served on the advisory board of special collections for Emory’s Woodruff Library.

“That’s what opened this world up to me,” he said. “Special collections are a treasure chest of materials. Archivists and scholars know this stuff is there. Most people think you need a Ph.D. to access it, but you don't. I go there to bring these things alive for regular people."

Event preview

“The Green Book.” Through Sept. 11. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $15-$35. Also, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27; seniors' matinees at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 31 and Sept. 10; students' matinee at 11 a.m. Sept. 7. (For group discounts, call 678-528-1497.) Theatrical Outfit at Balzer Theater, 84 Luckie St., Atlanta. 678-528-1500,