Early in Thomas Bradshaw’s new play, the title character, Carlyle Meyers, reveals the question that the performance will set out to answer: How it is that a black person could end up becoming a Republican? He elaborates:

CARLYLE: There’s no simple answer to the question of how a black person ends up a Republican. And I think the question is problematic in the first place. The question assumes that all black people think alike, talk alike and vote alike. As if black people are some homogeneous group.

A lawyer for the Republican Party, Carlyle is living proof that not all black people vote alike–but it’s indisputable that Carlyle, along with a number of high profile black Republicans like former presidential hopeful Ben Carson, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is in the minority in the African American community. A Pew Center study showed that in 2012, 76% of African American voters were registered as Democrats, with only 16% registered as Republicans, and a whopping 93% of African American voters cast a vote for Democrat Barack Obama for president. While that number was higher than previous election cycles, it was not an anomaly: since the 1930s, African Americans have voted Democratic in large majorities ranging from 60% to 95%. “It’s true that most blacks vote Democratic,” admits Carlyle, “but lots vote Republican too–they just won’t tell you ‘cause they know that a lynch mob will come burn down their house if they admit that.” While this sentiment may seem over the top, this line reveals an uncomfortable truth: over the course of the 20th century the term “black Republican” has come to seem like a contradiction.

“Since President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal,” wrote the editors of the Chicago Defender in 1976, “being black and Republican was about as compatible as being black and aspiring to leadership in the Ku Klux Klan.” Through Democratic liberal policies like the New Deal and later Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, African Americans made significant advances for racial equality and social justice. By contrast, during that same period, the GOP was moving further away from its identity as the “Party of Lincoln” and instead became indelibly associated with Herbert Hoover’s anti-civil rights “lily-white” movement, the “Operation Dixie” campaign that conservatively unionized Southern industry in the 1950s and Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to win back white Southern voters to the party. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act passed that year, and Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign with a now-infamous “states’ rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town in which three civil rights workers were murdered 16 years earlier. In short, as authors Hanes Walton and Robert Smith argue in American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom, the GOP had become a party whose conservatism seems to make it “virtually impossible for blacks, given their history and condition,” to accept. By extension, those African Americans who identified as Republican were often perceived as “sell-outs” who were not committed to racial justice and empowerment.

“Over the course of the 20th century the term “black Republican” has come to seem like a contradiction.”

But as scholars like Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, point out, conservative thought has deep historical roots in the African American community, and its proponents have long been engaged in the struggle for racial equality, seeing conservative ideology as a legitimate solution to the ills that afflicted their community. In his 2008 book Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T. Washington to Condoleezza Rice, law professor Christopher Alan Bracey charts the history of black conservative thought from the 18th century to the present day, locating its origins in two forces that have motivated conservatives for generations: love of God and country. Specifically, he links black conservative thought to Christian evangelism and a strong faith in God’s plan, as well as the pursuit of “American exceptionalism,” a concept rooted in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and that has grown into a national mythology. This belief portrays America as a mythical space of unlimited human potential, a beacon of freedom and democracy, with Americans as a kind of chosen people. It is almost impossible, of course, to reconcile the history of slavery, segregation and ongoing racial bias with the American cultural mythology of freedom, democracy and human equality. But Bracey argues that it has been this project–to pacify the mythology of American exceptionalism with the reality of racial suffering by African Americans—that has animated black conservative thought from the outset. For early black conservatives like Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League, promoting black economic success and greater inclusion in American society was the goal, and the way to achieve those ends was through respectability, proper deportment (including a deference to authority) and strict adherence to an ethical, temperate and productive lifestyle. Washington in particular saw black economic advancement as a more secure path to greater social integration than the pursuit of political and legal rights for blacks, which was the hallmark of the Northern liberal agenda.

Washington’s approach, with its focus on pragmatism, middle-class morality and an emphasis on economic advancement over political solutions, continued to hold a strong appeal through the dawn of the 20th century, when it came under fire from W.E.B. DuBois, author of The Souls of Black Folk and founder of the NAACP. DuBois repudiated Washington’s accommodationism and called for “persistent agitation [as] the way to liberty.” The majority of African Americans followed DuBois’ lead, shifting to the political left through the decades that followed. But certain tenets of black conservative thought, such as a belief in hard work, self-reliance and personal responsibility, continued to hold appeal. What perhaps most strongly marked the distinction between liberals and conservatives within the black community in the early 20th century was the manner in which they struck a balance between their racial and national identities–between their “blackness” and their “Americanness.” Early 20th century liberals tended to place a strong importance on their racial identity, while conservatives of the period preferred to emphasize their American identity over their race.

With the advent of the civil rights movement, black conservatives were pushed even further to the margins, but for those who did retain their affiliation with the Republican Party, their political philosophy was generally defined by either a strong social conservatism, or a strong opposition to government interventions in black life–or both. Those prominent black conservatives who rose to power during the Reagan administration–people like Supreme Court Justice Thomas, former Secretaries of State Rice and Colin Powell–shared with their white Republican counterparts a social conservatism and a mistrust of government intervention and the welfare state, leading to their opposition to the very programs that many others within the African American community credit with breaking down barriers and advancing racial justice–programs like Affirmative Action, which Justice Thomas opposes. It’s hardly surprising then that Carlyle, a self-proclaimed acolyte of Justice Thomas, would feel the need to go to great lengths–including putting on his own autobiographical play–to explain himself; for all their deep historical roots, the black Republican is still a political unicorn.