Tag Archives: Jackie Alexander

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.

Loose Ends and All, “The Resurrection of Alice” Still Offers a Fresh Viewpoint on Black Subjugation

Review: NC Black Rep’s The Resurrection of Alice

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rounding into November, I would ordinarily check the weather forecast before venturing out to Boone, NC, to review a theatre production. Not in 2020. All of the Schaefer Center’s events on the campus of Appalachian State University are listed as online. Weather, ticket availability, and travel are no longer in the equation, all obviated by the new norms of computerized streaming. Virtuality would be a straightforward compromise if it only involved translating music, dance, and theatre from three dimensions to two. Mandated social distancing for professional actors and dancers, concerns over spreading airborne particles by singers and horn players, and stricter limits on the number of people who can gather in public places have added more constraints.

So it was refreshing to see how effortlessly all of these new restrictions were handled in the North Carolina Black Repertory Company’s production of The Resurrection of Alice, the latest Schaefer Center presentation. Better yet, the NC Black Rep production team disdained the annoyances that have plagued performing arts webcasts during the pandemic – dumbed-down content, abbreviated runtimes, and screens carved up ZOOM-style into tic-tack-toe boxes.

Though she would have to be 88 years old to actually stand before us as the protagonist in this drama, the script and the one-woman performance by Perri Gaffney had the detail – and superabundance of characters – of an autobiographical narrative. Sure enough, Gaffney’s play of 2013 resurrected a novel that she had self-published in 2004, so the 2020 version, shot with multiple cameras on the Schaefer stage, brought us an actress/playwright/novelist who had lived with the multiple roles she was taking on for nearly two decades.

The actress wasted no time in reaching peak energy, for Alice begins her tale in 1939 as a raucous, upbeat 7-year-old in the fictional backwater of Smedley, South Cackalacky – she doesn’t break down and let on that it’s South Carolina until much later. As the eldest child in her humble household, Alice must set a “zample” for her siblings, which drains some of the fun out of her childhood; and as the prettiest, she must marry Mr. Luthern Tucker, the family benefactor, which robs the teenager and the grownup of her budding love life with Isaac Freeman – and deprives her of the college scholarship she is so excited to win.

Alice’s “best birthday” is her 13th, when she meets Isaac at her party and savors her first peppermint-flavored kiss during a game of spin-the-bottle – until that kiss is cruelly interrupted by her elders. The other bright light in Alice’s life is her schoolteacher, Miss Johnson, who recognizes her gifts and encourages her college ambitions. Although the shadow of Mr. Tucker had hung over Alice from an early age, her parents kept their betrothal agreement a secret until the moment she joyfully received news of her fully-paid tuition scholarship in the mail.

Gaffney crafted the lead-up to this catastrophe and performed its impact upon Alice in a manner that delivered both the shock and the inevitability of her disappointment. Although Alice elicited a promise from Miss Johnson to intercede at the wedding ceremony, an unfortunate miscommunication ensued – along with another shock. Alice found herself imprisoned in wedlock at Mr. Tucker’s luxurious home, expected to do her part in birthing a male heir.

Balancing Alice’s rusticity and intellect, Gaffney’s narrative leans a little more than necessary towards her backwoods naivete in the early episodes, forcing Alice’s interest in Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poetry to do the heavy lifting in conveying her academic potential. It was intriguing to hear two of Dunbar’s most oft-quoted works, presumably giving voice to a Black man’s struggles in White America, so provocatively repurposed. For here, “We Wear the Mask” and “Sympathy” (with its famous “I know why the caged bird sings”) are the outcries of an African American woman who is subjugated by a man of her own race. When Alice finds her own voice, two or three children later, I was more convinced that a resurrection was possible, although Gaffney’s script makes her protagonist’s reawakening and rehab too precipitous to be fully satisfying.

Gaffney’s exploits as an actress offered ample compensation. Inspiring resurrection or not, Gaffney bridged the gap between narrating Alice’s story and inhabiting her personality so seamlessly that I felt that I was watching her grow and mature before my eyes while the narrative unfolded. Portrayals of the men in Alice’s life, prudently brief and nicely differentiated, added richness wherever they popped up, particularly when we glimpsed Isaac, Mr. Tucker, and Rev. Pritchard. If I were director Jackie Alexander, I would try to prevail upon Gaffney to fill out her portrayals of the key women in her tale. Alice’s mamma was too cartoonish for what she had to say, and Mrs. Johnson was too colorless.

Alexander occasionally took advantage of the cinematic medium by blacking out between scenes, though he never implemented any costume changes. Scenic projections on the upstage curtain were hit-and-miss in terms of registering well on video and a bit slow in playing an integral role in the production. Each time Alice voiced the anger that was welling up inside her but, as it turned out, didn’t actually say out loud at the time, lighting designer underscored the motif by flooding the stage with lurid red light. A bit heavy-handed and Rocky Horror, perhaps, but the crude device paid dividends when Alice finally flipped the script and discarded her inhibitions.

While the lapses in Gaffney’s artistry lend a certain rough-hewn authenticity to her narrative, they also deprive us of seeing more of the actress at work. It would make more sense – and give us a fuller grasp of her maturation as a woman – if Alice’s experience as a mother of her three children (or at least of her two eldest) were part of her growth. And Alice’s younger daughter, Ola, “came out” so abruptly near the end that you could easily have missed it. If these loose ends happen to be tied up in Gaffney’s 2004 novel, a simple import would suffice in 2020 and beyond.