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In 'Letters From Freedom Summer,' Kansas City Director Raises Timely Questions

UMKC Theatre

The last Saturday in April was bright and warm, and the students walking around campus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City wore, along with their shorts, the confident expressions of the just-about-done. It was almost summer.

Inside the school’s Spencer Theatre, the season had already arrived, but the young people onstage were about to start something.

Cue Martha and the Vandellas: It's an invitation across the nation, a chance for folks to meet/They'll be laughing and singing, music swinging/Dancing in the street.

Over a Motown soundtrack, actors dressed for June 1964 worked through a scene in which folks from different parts of the country — from another country, in one case — meet, laugh, sing a little and set out for Mississippi, full of confidence. It’s about to be Freedom Summer.

They’re taking urban progressivism to the rural South, hoping to register waves of new black voters. But not every shuffle in the streets is going to be jubilant. (The low brass on the verses of the song sounds like a warning siren before the trumpets and the chorus deliver reassurance.)

This was the first technical rehearsal for “Letters From Freedom Summer,” part of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 2018 OriginKC: New Works Festival. It’s in rotation this weekend with a premiere production of “Brother Toad,” by playwright in residence Nathan Louis Jackson, and “Welcome to Fear City,” by Kara Lee Corthron.

Credit University of Missouri-Kansas City
Ricardo Khan directs 'Letters from Freedom Summer.'

For Director Ricardo Khan, 65, a founder of the pioneering Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey and a longtime faculty member at UMKC, it’s a spiritual sequel to his previous play, “Freedom Rider.” That 2015 production dramatized a 1961 bus trip shared by early civil rights protesters. Written by Jackson, Murray Horwitz, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson and Nikkole Salter from an idea by Khan, it was fueled in part by political unrest at that time, especially the Arab Spring.

In the new play, Khan said, “It’s been three years of a pretty remarkable journey from 1961, which was a very idealistic time, to the summer of 1964, which had just seen the assassination of John F. Kennedy as well as the march on Washington in 1963. In addition to the question of war in Vietnam, there were differences growing between ethnicities, between black and white, between the suburbs and the inner cities.”

That also feels unnervingly timely. But Khan and his co-writers this time — veteran actress Denise Nicholas and Sibusiso Mamba, a 40-year-old writer-director who has worked extensively in Africa — didn’t set out to note that history was repeating itself.

“You could feel it if you paid attention, if you understood racism,” Nicholas said by phone from her Los Angeles home, recalling the political atmosphere when she started working on this project. “But it wasn’t as bad as it’s gotten. I started in the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi. I saw bombs, shootings, the Klan. I’m familiar with the terrain.”

Nicholas was among the volunteers of Freedom Summer, having come south from her native Detroit to study at Tulane University. In 2005, she published “Freshwater Road,” a novel about a young black woman who travels from Michigan to Mississippi as part of the civil rights movement. She and Khan discussed adapting it to the stage, but ultimately she and Mamba, who had studied at a workshop with Khan, began collaborating on what would become the new production.

“Sibu has family members who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement,” Nicholas said. “What he brought was that other level of connecting what happened in Africa to what happened in the civil rights movement. There’s a character in the play, who he created, who is South African and who gets involved with a girl I created, who goes south into the movement. The question from him is: ‘In 1964, why am I doing this when I should be fighting a battle at home in South Africa?’”

Credit DeniseNicholas.net
Denise Nicholas, one of the writers of 'Letters from Freedom Summer,' on the cover of Jet magazine in 1960.

“Sibu had told me stories about his father leaving South Africa to go study in Toronto and then coming back to South Africa with all these Motown albums,” Khan recalled.

“I started to imagine his father’s journey — to go on a pilgrimage to Motown and end up in the American civil rights movement. And Denise left Detroit to participate in Freedom Summer rights. So we started working.”

Khan also thought about the young people at UMKC.

“MeToo and Black Lives Matter are really reminiscent for me of the 1960s. I imagined being a young person, or anybody today, receiving letters or reading journals from the people back then.”

A year ago, work hit a snag when Khan’s job was among those eliminated after the state’s university system slashed budgets. Just before this school year, though, other staff changes kept his position alive, and the project resumed.

Contributing to the spectacle of theatricality is the show’s scenic designer, Tristan James, 26, who has collaborated on projections with the shapeshifting Kansas City arts ensemble Quixotic.

“It became clear how many places we had to go, from Ohio to Mississippi,” said James.

Working with Quixotic, he created a set he described as “essentially a huge shattered piece of glass” that allows for montages showing multiple images at once.

“The show deals with a lot of heaviness in it, stuff that makes you say: ‘This sucks,’” he said. “This was 1964, and it’s still happening today. So we want to be able to grab together onto big emotions, using every form of art. You’re going to, I hope, feel something immersive.”

“This was the beauty of that journey: It was about people,” Khan said. “It was a beautiful time and chapter in American history. People came together across generational lines and racial lines to support a greater truth.”

At rehearsal, the actors begin a scene again. The South African has just met the woman who recalls the young Nicholas, the two of them waiting outside a Marvin Gaye concert in Detroit. (Gaye co-wrote “Dancing in the Streets,” and it’s him playing that great trash-can drum groove.)

She tells him she’s joining the cause because she can’t abide complacency. She looks at him, a fictional character speaking across decades of progress gained and ground lost.

“If not us, who?” she asks him. “If not now, when?” The drama is just getting started.

Letters From Freedom Summer” opens Friday, May 6 and runs through May 13 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry, Kansas City, Missouri 64110; 816-235-2700. Tickets available at the Central Ticket Office.

KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Scott Wilson is a writer and editor in Kansas City. Contact him at editorscottwilson@gmail.com.

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