Redbridge Drama Centre
This is a play about the Freedom Riders.
“Who were they?” you ask. An older generation may know—the generation that still remembers where they were when JFK was shot but even director Natalie Wilson admits she didn’t know until Theatre Centre started planning their new production. So it isn’t surprising if young people don’t know about them, but they should. This play will tell them and perhaps inspire them to stand up for what they believe.
The Freedom Riders were American civil rights activists, black and white and all ages but many of them students organised by the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). They rode the interstate buses in the southern states to challenge the Jim Crow segregation there.
In 1960, there had already been sit-ins by students and young people against segregated luncheon-counters and shops and the US Supreme Court had declared segregation on buses unconstitutional. On 4 May 1961, the first Freedom Riders left Washington DC bound for New Orleans. Seven black and six white, they boarded buses ignoring the seats assigned by colour with white in the front and black at the back.
Lisa Evans’s play is a montage of incidents of what happened to them and those who followed seen through the experience of young volunteers from their decision to go, describing the danger they faced and the violence they met. From presenting the Riders and their situation, it cuts to reactions in the White House and to the Ku Klux Klan and other racists making plans for their reception.
It is presented with great simplicity, concentrating on the content. On an empty stage designer Emma Donovan places four simple stools. Behind them are shiny aluminium panels that hint at the Greyhound and Trailways buses on which the Riders travelled and on which the route of the journey will be drawn.
Four actors (three black one white) tell the story. They speak as themselves in their English voices, switching to American accents as they assume characters playing across colour and gender, though race and sex are clearly identified by context.
This approach gives a simple directness that allows them to assume any character and heightens the impact of the violence they describe without acting it out. They all play multiple roles as well as narrating.
Emma Dennis-Edwards, as Em, can be President Kennedy or a black Rider. Kimisha Lewis, as Dayz, can be a racist white shopper or Diane Nash of the SNCC who sends a new set of Riders south after the first Greyhound had had its tyres slashed and been burned.
Sam Kacher, playing CJ, can in a moment become a black student who nearly misses the bus or Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Edward Nkom, as Ty, can be Marvin a black student with his head slit open or Police Commissioner Bull Connor (who conveniently gives his officers the day off for Mothers’ Day) telling the Klan they have 15 minutes to “burn, maim, bomb those negro lovers” before his men go in to make arrests.
Natalie Wilson doesn’t aim at naturalism in her production but captures the individual moment of each situation, pitching it straight out to the audience. Performers move with ease from presenter to character, role assignment sometimes becoming part of the action. Some of the telling is in almost rap-like verse form and one of the most effective passages, delivered by Edward Nkom as Ty, is a quiet interior piece of verse in contrast to the tension, the fear and the violence that is elsewhere conveyed so vividly.
This play concentrates on the earliest Riders, the burned bus at Anniston, 15 minutes of passive resistance to brutal bloodshed in Birmingham, the second wave down to Birmingham, arrested, driven out of town and dumped in Klan country on the Tennessee border—but there were hundreds more Riders: those aluminium panels turn around to display their photographs.
This is a piece of history that needs to be known about. Our freedoms are hard won and there are freedoms for which we still have to fight. From the reactions of teenage students after the performance I saw, this production gets that message home.
September to November, Rise Up will be touring to Oxford, Maidenhead, Shoreham, Cambridge, Coventry, Hull and Taunton with other dates to be announced.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton