Actress Vinnie Burrows as Aunt Flora is bringing Drama Desk Award winning playwright J.E. Franklin’s play “Freedom Rider” to life and to memory. The play showcased at the Dwyer Cultural Center, located at 258 St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem, revisits the 1960s when interracial activists challenged the segregation laws and harsh treatment African Americans had to endure under the harsh Jim Crow Laws of the south. It was a time when young college students and brave individuals who fought for civil rights, boarded buses and traveled south to segregated areas. This became known as the Freedom Rides.
Although many of the activists were told to practice non-violence and given training on how to deal with abuse by rolling into a ball when struck by violent individuals bent on keeping segregation in effect, many had no idea the hate they would encounter and the dangers they would face, which for some resulted in their death. Buses were fire bombed and freedom riders were jailed and viciously beaten by violent mobs of southern men, women and children filled with such inordinate hatred they attacked civil rights workers with baseball bats, tire irons and bricks. One famous incident that became national news was the murders of Freedom Riders and Civil Rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman who fell prey to the local KKK, after attempting to register Black voters in Mississippi.
Ms. Franklin’s play, directed by Eric Coleman, takes us back to the summer of 1964, in Harmony Village, Mississippi, where we become acquainted with the foot soldiers consisting of hundreds of youth who braved the onslaught of Jim Crow to register voters. Attempting to register voters and assure civil rights came at a high price. It is especially important to remember those who risked their lives in order to win freedom and civil rights for the many southern Blacks, Jews and people of color who bore the hardships of unfair and oppressive laws; living under what could be called American apartheid. Not only were there the freedom riders but also the brave Black people living in these regions who remained long after the freedom fighters returned home. Those brave individuals who faced the rage and insanity of vicious whites on a daily basis; whites whose hate saw no bounds and who wielded their brand of law underneath white sheets at the slightest provocation. It took great bravado for those southern Blacks to register to vote knowing the danger they and their families were in.
Young Clarissa (Kayla Ross) was one such freedom rider who naively traveled south thinking she could convince the whites that black folks were human too. Not understanding Hank’s contention that whites did not see themselves as mere humans but rather Exalted Cyclops and Grand Wizards, superior to black folks whom they saw as beneath them. Hank played by Sean Turner tried to explain to Clarissa that she was not dealing with sane people but people who were willing to do whatever it took to make sure their way of life as the master race never changed. Hank and his wife Agnes (Malika Nzinga), were taking a risk housing the freedom riders and grew very concerned when two young white girls were sent to them. They housed the white women with feisty Aunt Flora who had raised and suckled many of the Whites who later grew up to abuse black people. Flora cleverly knew how to cajole the unsuspecting whites. Although Clarissa was black, her naivety was a source of concern for Hank and Agnes who feared Clarissa could foolishly put a lot of the local blacks in harm’s way. They also feared housing the white freedom fighters, especially women, in their homes, given the interracial taboos of the time. After all, blacks remembered what Mississippi had done to 14-year-old Emmett Till, whom a white woman said whistled at her, causing Till to be brutally murdered.
“Freedom Rider,” is a poignant play and very enlightening. It is definitely worth seeing and gives the viewer a perspective of the unsung heroes whose stories heretofore have gone untold. The production runs each Friday, at 7:00 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. and on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Freedom Rider will run until Sunday, Nov. 2 at 3:00 p.m.
Go see it and take your children to see it as well. It’s a piece of history we all should know and honor.