Freedom Summer Illuminates White Privilege, Sloppy With Its History

Review:  Freedom Summer at UNCSA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Those of us who remember the affable senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, and the threat that he posed to President Lyndon Johnson and his vision of a “Great Society,” likely also remember the names of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Barely a month after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and just over two weeks after Goldwater had won the Republican presidential nomination in San Francisco, the bodies of those three men, missing since June 21, were found 44 days later on August 4, buried underneath an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Ranging in age from 20 to 25, the young men had been encouraging disenfranchised Black Mississippians to register to vote in the upcoming election. Their disappearance spurred momentum for ratification of the Civil Rights Act – and their martyrdom at the hands of a brutal lynch mob helped pave the way for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Freedom Summer, playwright Cynthia Robinson takes us back to the morning of August 4, when the Mississippi atrocity came to light. In a North Carolina Black Repertory Company production streamed online by the Appalachian Summer Festival from Appalachian State University, we saw how the news impacted a Mississippi family in crisis – on protagonist Nora Healey’s wedding day in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nora, née Peola Carrington, has been passing for white since her northward journey from Jackson, Mississippi, two years earlier. Her sister, Carrie, has been waiting outside in the pouring rain for a good part of the morning, making sure that the street is clear before knocking on Nora’s door. Against Nora’s wishes, Carrie has followed Nora to Boston, hoping to break up the wedding and send her older sister back home to take care of their recently widowed mother. These opening moments capsulize the attachment and antagonism between the siblings. Nora sees Carrie outside her front door through her peep hole but instinctively lets her in anyway, despite the fact that having a sister who is unquestionably Black will spoil everything if her fiancé or his family were to show up. Of course, Carrie’s care in preserving this ruse, waiting until the coast was clear, exemplifies the same sort of ambivalence.

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So Freedom Summer often mimics the motion of other reunion plays, like Crimes of the Heart, where siblings shuttle between fondly reminiscing or laughing over their shared pasts and arguing furiously over eternal grudges and differences. Robinson’s drama has a few lighter moments in the sisters’ past, including a schoolyard chant they made up together, how Carrie likes her scrambled eggs, a resurrection of fried bologna sandwiches, and listening to The Shirelles. All of these were eclipsed for Nora by the locals’ lynching of Isaiah, the young man that she had a crush on. That was more than adequate reason for big sister to flee to Boston and fashion a new identity. On the other hand, continuing her life in Jackson, Carrie found more than sufficient motivation to head up toward Ohio for training at Western College to become part of the Freedom Summer campaign. To Nora’s annoyance – and mine, I’ll have to admit – Carrie wanted her older sister to ditch her wedding plans immediately and head on down to Mississippi to take her place in caring for Mom, while she traveled on to Ohio.

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Robinson’s drama, then, ultimately becomes about a unique and provocative choice, for after attaining the joys and freedoms of white privilege, Nora is told by her upstart sister to give them up. Should we blame Nora for wanting to hold on? Robinson has her Nora articulating the transformative wonders, the liberations of attaining white privilege, and here is Carrie, the sister with the darker skin and nappy hair, lecturing her that she should be back home, fighting for the rights and liberties of her brothers and sisters who have decided against taking the simple steps she has, packing up and leaving. As the confrontation between the sisters unfolds, we learn that Nora’s choice spans two generations, for their mom could have passed for white had she chosen to, but she stood by Dad, inescapably Black, in building their lives in Jackson. For so many reasons, Nora cannot agree with that choice.

In directing this new play, which has yet to be performed for a live audience, Jackie Alexander could have helped Robinson more in aligning Freedom Summer with the actual history of that hot 1964 summer. A quick dip into Wikipedia would have told them that, by the end of June 1964, the families of the missing white civil rights workers, Goodman and Schwerner, had met with President Johnson in the Oval Office, and that their disappearance had become a top story for Walter Cronkite, the CBS Evening News, and the nation at large.

Yet Nora’s posh Boston living room and dining room aren’t equipped with either a television or a telephone. Instead, news of the bodies being found comes across Nora’s console radio in the form of bulletins interrupting her music. It’s a pretty awkward moment, then, when a newsman preempts for the third or fourth time and announces that the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner are beginning to garner national attention – for a couple of reasons. Actual history has been saying otherwise for over a month, and the fact that anything is gaining national attention isn’t the stuff of news bulletins. Instead of curing Robinson’s carelessness, Alexander only compounds it, for no matter which Boston radio station the bulletins interrupt, the voice of the announcer is always the same, listed in the credits as belonging to Eric Dowdy and unmistakably infused with a Southern accent.

Set designer Lizabeth Ramirez captures the proper Bostonian ambiance of Nora’s pad without going overboard, and costume designer Frenchie Slade clearly delineates between Nora’s nonchalant stylishness and Carrie’s backwoods dowdiness. In Mariah Guillmatte, Alexander found an actor who was close to perfection as Nora, with touches of vanity, defensiveness, and paranoia as she kept and protected her ongoing masquerade. Yet above all, Guillmatte was passionate in her eloquence as she decried Isaiah’s brutal lynching and when she recalled her own sense of humiliation while her mother lived a degraded life as a menial cleaning woman instead of moving the family out of Jackson and passing as white. Guillmatte turned up the passion as she tried to warn Carrie of the dangers she was facing as part of the Freedom Summer campaign, turning her scorn instead upon Goodman and Schwerner, the white northerners who had underestimated the perils. And Guillmatte applied the right mix of stubbornness and vulnerability as she stood up for her fiancé James’s character and the likelihood that he would stand up for her if he discovered her secret.

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Robinson has made it difficult for anybody to shine as Carrie, for she arrives in Boston with a suitcase full of objects that she returns to and unveils, one after another, each time she wishes to make a point. This motif magnifies the sense that Carrie, annoying enough already, is bringing evidence against her sister and putting her on trial. Yet Nikyla Boxley as Carrie rarely if ever looked like a passionate idealist who could transcend this repetitive ritual. Instead, with her arms rigidly hanging almost always at her sides, Boxley seemed like a girl who had learned right from wrong in schoolrooms and at her church, though she claims to be a political crusader now and bound for law school when the revolution is won. When Carrie turned on music or sat down for tea, breakfast, or bologna, Boxley would suddenly loosen up as if released from strict military discipline with an “at ease” command. Alexander should have helped Boxley smooth out such incongruities. The best of Boxley, if you could ignore the rigidity of her posture, came when she argued on behalf of her activism, on behalf of honoring the heroism of those who had died for the cause, and against Nora’s deceiving her fiancé – and herself.

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Freedom Summer is actually a newly enlarged version of a previous Robinson play, Peola’s Passing, which was about 30 minutes in length. There have been growing pains in the transition, no doubt, as the new script attempts to add more weight by absorbing the pivotal history of the tumultuous summer of 1964. When Boxley and Guillmatte got into the crux of the Carrington sisters’ debate, Nora’s need for liberation and self-fulfillment pitted against the power of Carrie’s compulsion to remedy the unjust oppression of her people, Robinson’s dialogue, with strong and passionate arguments on both sides, crackled with vitality and authenticity, not at all diluted. I’d urge both Robinson and Alexander to dig deeper and sharpen Freedom Summer, so that it delivers its meaningful history even more accurately when it opens for a live audience.

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