On Saturday February 20th I had the pleasure of attending a performance by a group of mainly high school students (there was one middle schooler) called:
Above: Policemen lead a group of black school children into jail on May 4, 1963. Photograph by Bill Hudson/AP.
Based on oral histories and interviews of those who were there, the all female ensemble made visible the role young people played in the campaign for equality.
The show was at Downtown Art, a non profit on the lower east side in NYC. For over 20 years they have worked with young artists and community members to create original theater, music and performance events.
For those of you who don’t know this wonderful organization, you can learn more about them here: http://downtownart.org/
I have seen the images and read about the protests but for some reason it never really sunk in that children were on the front lines of the protests. Fear of the repercussions, like losing their jobs, made it difficult for adults to take the risk. Busloads of young people were sent to jail during that time, some as young as 9 years old. I tried to imagine myself as a 9 year old. What fears did I have? What did I protest? Nothing came close to what those children chose to face at such a young age.
For just over one hour, using simple things like a chalk board, some step stools and guitarist Michael Hickey*, the actors transformed the space and brought us into the world of 1963 Birmingham. They spoke, they sang, they were silent, they used their breath and silence, and they danced. I had goose bumps when they sang. My heart skipped a beat as they reenacted being hit by the powerful water from fire hoses; and I rejoiced with them at the freedom they felt by taking the risk and making their voices heard. Each moment was powerfully crafted to draw us deeper into the world and energy of those emotionally challenging times.
I want to thank the actors and Downtown Art for their artistry and for putting on such a powerful performance. I sat in the audience with tears in my eyes as the show artfully helped me gain more understanding of the vicious nature of those times. It went even deeper as I was seeing connections with the politics of equality today. While my eyes welled up, I also had a sense of pride in how beautiful it was to see young people so eloquently and graciously taking on these difficult roles. They represented the children of 1963 Alabama beautifully. Their talent and commitment to the work were awe inspiring.
Congrats to the actors and to Downtown Art for a magnificent performance and for your dedication to representing content like this for the community. Your work inspired me to bring middle school students from Bedford Stuyvesant the following week. Thanks to Ryan Gilliam from Downtown Art it was possible to bring the group. One of the middle school students said to me after the show: “Thank you Ms. Watts. You helped me feel again.”
Thank you Downtown Art, you helped me feel again too. 🙂
*Michael Hickey also has a wonderful blog. You can check it out here: http://manabouttown.nyc/full-bio/
Watch a video about Birmingham in 1963 here:
One of the resource videos for the script:
A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963, Birmingham, Alabama. AP/BILL HUDSON