In 1961, in the heat of the civil rights movement, black and white college students rode buses through the South to challenge segregated public transportation. These "Freedom Riders" are the subject of a new play being staged by the University of Missouri-Kansas City's theater department. It's a collaboration between students, several playwrights, a director, and a choir. They hope to inspire a conversation about how the lessons of the past can have meaning in the present.
As an Associated Press reporter in Atlanta in the early 1960s, Mercer Bailey covered many aspects of the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Now a Lake Winnebego, Missouri resident —and, full disclosure, the stepfather of this reporter — Bailey recalls one assignment that placed him on a bus with a group of young people who came to be known as the Freedom Riders.
"One night we got a call from New York that they wanted to send somebody right away to South Carolina to get on a Freedom Bus headed for Florida. I was available so I went," Bailey says. "I flew into South Carolina, found the bus — they were waiting for me, knew I was coming — and got on.
"There were, I don’t know, probably 15 or 20 people on a big standard commercial bus. And my orders were to keep close look at what was happening. But unless there was violence, they didn’t expect me to write anything."
When asked if he felt welcome on the bus, Bailey replies, "Well, I was welcomed in a sense, but there wasn’t any great to-do about it. I explained to them who I was and why I was there. Back then you never knew what would happen so sometimes you’d just go and hope that nothing happened but if it did, you’d be there to cover it. Maybe I was just lucky."
That ride was uneventful, unlike many others during a time that's the focus of a world premiere play called Freedom Rider, a production of the UMKC Theater Department, directed by Ricardo Khan.
"The fact that young people would give up their summer vacations to ride a bus down south in order to make a difference. Why? Because we’re not free until we’re all free – it was that kind of thing," says Khan.
"What was special about this is that it was black and white people coming together. Simply because they were sitting together, they were causing an uproar in the South. It was perfectly legal, from a federal point of view, but in the South, the Southern states were saying, 'Well, we don’t care if it’s legal or not. Our tradition is to keep people separate.' So what these young people wanted to do, both black and white, was to go down there and provoke the federal government to enforce the laws against discrimination."
Khan entrusted four playwrights — Murray Horwitz, Nathan Louis Jackson, Kathleen McGhee Anderson, and Nikkole Salter — to create four young characters whose stories would lend the play a narrative focus. Playing Carl, a 20-year-old Howard University student, is Edwin Brown, who says he was vaguely aware of the Freedom Riders but has embraced his homework.
"We've been saturating ourselves in the documentaries and music and the stories and it's been awe-inspiring what this nation has been through and the advances we do have," says Brown. "It's wonderful to do that and to learn from the past and see what we can do now. What is my freedom ride going to be? If I don't even have a backing, how can I lift my voice with my art, with my politics, what have you, my gifts to inspire the next movement?"
UMKC student Michael Thayer plays Phillip, a Jewish Freedom Rider from Ohio. Thayer says his performance is helped by a personal connect to current political protests f0r LGBT rights.
"Because I didn't know anything about the freedom ride, how do I as an actor put myself in those shoes? As an "out" man, the stuff that's been happening in Indiana and all over the country," says Thayer. "So having that kind of fuels me and helps me fuel Phillip and his discovery of why he's doing what he's doing."
At a recent rehearsal, the company is filled out by a group of singers who will play a pivotal role in telling the story. They've been pulled together by Mia Ramsey, the show's music consultant and community liaison. These songs, she says, provided "a soundtrack that helped people understand the movement and move through the movement emotionally."
Ricardo Khan says he's hopeful that the play will inspire younger audiences to find some contemporary catalyst.
"What was interesting to me was what the students felt about telling this story today. Not in order to tell history, but in order to make a difference today. To have some level of relevance today," Khan says.
"What makes you mad? What would cause you today to get on the bus and do something? What would cause you today, in a relatively comfortable world, to decide to leave that world and face the discomfort of somebody else’s plight? What matters to you? When I talk to young people today, they say, ‘Wow. I want to be part of a movement but the movements are all gone, they’ve all happened.’ I say, ‘Not really.'"
Khan adds that feeling disheartened offers two options: giving up or taking a stand.
UMKC Theatre presents 'Freedom Rider,' directed by Ricardo Khan, May 1 - 10, Spencer Theatre, James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets available through the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222 or online.