As families prepare to pile into cars for summer vacations, one new play takes a trip back in time to explore the experience of black travelers in Jim Crow-era America.
Kansas City playwright Michelle Tyrene Johnson’s new work, The Green Book Wine Club Train Trip, gets a staged reading at the Olathe Civic Theatre Association’s this weekend, after winning the OCTA's New Works Playwright Competition, when audiences voted for the winning script over the course of two nights in March. That same month, it was staged in the New York City at the National Black Theatre.
The play's main character is a soft-spoken librarian named Marie. She's researching a memory book for her grandmother’s 80th birthday, and has invited her friends to tag along with her on a weekend train trip to St. Louis.
As part of her research, Marie has been studying “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” It’s a guidebook that was published from 1936 to 1966, when widespread discrimination limited the safe places blacks could stay while traveling. When the train Marie and her friends are riding on stops in Boonville, Missouri, she steps out to get some fresh air and is accidentally transported back to the 1940s.
Johnson first encountered a copy of the “Green Book” in a glass case at a museum of African-American history in Greensboro, North Carolina. She says she was immediately intrigued. Once she’d settled on writing a play about time travel, she knew she had to find a way to use it.
Vintage copies of the guidebook are extremely rare, so Johnson did not have a chance to read it before writing the play. She found what she thought were replicas of the guidebook's cover on Amazon, and ordered a few to use as stage props. What arrived were replicas of the entire book.
“There was something very moving about getting the actual facsimiles, opening one and seeing that it was an actual ‘Green Book,’ so I was looking at it as if it was 1940 and I was trying to decide where I was going to try and stay as I was about to take a trip,” she says.
Thumbing through the pages, Johnson was surprised to discover that in the 1940s, there were only four hotels where blacks could stay in Kansas City.
Johnson says she thought about the book during a recent trip to visit friends in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I take for granted how I can just jump in my little car and drive someplace and can stay in a hotel when I get tired and not worry in an obvious way about my safety,” she says. “Unfortunately, I still, as a black woman in America, have to worry somewhat. But legally, if I want to stay in a hotel, they can’t say ‘We don’t let black people stay here.’”
Teresa Leggard, who directs the new production, met Johnson in 2014, while they were working on a production of “Girl on Girl” for the KC Fringe Festival. Since then, the two have collaborated frequently, and Leggard says she is excited to be working with Johnson again on a story she finds so compelling.
“I like the way Michelle handles what could be considered to be SciFi or speculative material,” says Leggard. “She uses science fiction as a tool to tell a very familiar narrative so it’s just left of reality, just ever so slightly.”
Marie is played by Marica Davis, a senior in theater and costume design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Davis says her biggest challenge was finding footing for Marie in both worlds. Clothing helped guide her.
“I am a costume designer, so I look up things and I grab little things that would make it seem like I was still from 2017, but I could also be in the 1940s and you would not notice me,” Davis says.
Leggard says the work is especially important at this moment in America.
“Right now, unfortunately, there’s a lot of things that are present that remind us of our past,” she says. “And so to be able to have 2017 jut up against a 1940s landscape, you get to hear how many of the conversations don’t actually sound antiquated. They don’t sound out of place. It’s very well a conversation that could be happening right now in a room full of women of color.”
And for Johnson, Marie’s disorienting journey back in time has made her think more deeply about both past and present.
"There’s a monologue where Marie, it sort of hits her: 'Whoa, I am in pre-Jim Crow time.' And she has this meltdown of all the things that she just can’t do (because) it’s illegal and not merely a bias or discrimination," Johnson says, "but legalized discrimination to your face."
And that makes her wonder: “How do you survive in another time, when your very self means something different? I don’t think that you can go unchanged. There are certain battles that have always been going on, that in subtle and not so subtle ways are still going on.”
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.