Art Spotlight

'Freedom Riders,' a tough musical about race relations -- on- and off-stage

Fifteen-year-old Julia Sewell still feels the sting of racism, encountering racial slurs and rude behavior from time to time. However, the Kingfield resident is smart enough to realize it's not her problem: "If you don't like me because of the color of my skin, it just shows how ignorant you are," she said.

Now in her fifth Youth Performance Company (YPC) production, "Freedom Riders," the 10th-grader plays a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker about to be sent into the Deep South in 1964. She also takes on the role of a Southern mother with a family housing SNCC volunteers in Mississippi.

Half of the volunteer 22-member cast are black and portray composite sketches of SNCC (pronounced "snick") members. The other 11 are white, and portray the white and Jewish students who came from Minnesota and other states to help register black voters and lobby for Civil Rights.

In addition to familiarizing the audience with our country's racial history (February is Black History Month, after all), plenty of education happened behind the curtain as well. And while Sewell and others learned, as she puts it, that "as a nation, we've come a long way when it comes to race relations," they also learned that skin-color still plays a significant role in society.

Real-time history

Each season, Whittier-based YPC stages one play that highlights young people who changed the course of history. "Freedom Riders," a musical drama, is this year's selection, written by Artistic Director and YPC Founder Jacie Knight.

SNCC initiated the Freedom Rider movement in the early 1960s. They trained their cadre in Ohio then sent them into the Deep South. Many Freedom Riders came from Minnesota, including City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward); Knight has invited some of them to attend the play.

The student's civil disobedience tactics included having whites sit at "black" lunch counters and blacks sit at "white" lunch counters. Their nonviolent acts triggered violent responses that made the national news, helping to force the federal government to get involved.

Some of the young idealists were murdered. "I asked my cast if they thought they'd have the courage to put their lives on the line, because the people they are portraying did," Knight said. "Most said they thought they would."

To understand the spirit of the early '60s, the young actors read books and watched PBS documentaries like "Eyes on the Prize." However, book reports could not compare to meeting people who were in the thick of it all.

Charles McDew currently teaches African-American History and the history of the Civil Rights movement at Metro State University. McDew chaired SNCC during the Freedom Riders time, and talked with the YPC teens about his experiences.

Rita Cannon, a sophomore at Southwest High School who plays a Freedom Rider, said she had seen the events he talked about on film, but to meet someone personally involved was nothing short of "incredible."

McDew did not mince words, she said. When the cast asked if he thought things were better in America now, he said he didn't think things have improved much; most people still tend to congregate according to skin-color.

Cannon said her school fits McDew's assessment: "There is an almost all-white group and nonwhite group at Southwest." However, like many teens, she attributes it to more of a "cultural thing;" it "just so happens that the culture thing is pretty much racial."

Although, according to Cannon, all the black and white kids in the cast liked one another, she did note that this cliquishness persisted. She said that one night during the dinner break, white and black kids ate on opposite sides of the hall.

"It was just an unconscious thing," Cannon said. "But it did seem kind of odd that we are spending six hours a day learning about racial issues and we did it."

The teens also learned about local race history from the oldest member of the cast, 83-year-old Bob Samples. He plays a senior citizen volunteer trying to register to vote. "The play accurately captures the times and tells the story," Samples said.

Cannon said when Knight assigned homework, Samples' was to share his experiences with the rest of the crew. He told them stories of how he moved with his wife into a nearby suburb to escape racism, only to be threatened by his 300-pound garbage man (among others) as an unofficial community representative.

"It was just as interesting as having Charles McDew coming to talk with us. It's a reminder that it happened to people who are with us right now," Cannon said.

Racial slurs, in song

"Freedom Riders" does not shirk from the bitterness of the struggle. Racial slurs slung at the blacks, whites and many young Jews who went South at the time abound -- "nigger," "coon," "cracker," "Jew-boy" and "Kike" permeate the dialogue.

"We are straightforward about the way it was," Knight said. "The dialogue captures the raw emotions behind the conflict."

Knight said teens' understanding of the need for accuracy helped them get over their initial shock at using such words on stage.

"'Freedom Riders' is a great play," Sewall said. "We are trying to portray a great stumbling block in our history that every body needs to know about."

What challenges Sewall the most isn't the dialogue or her role but the fact that, because it's a musical, she must sing and dance onstage.

Maya Washington, who acted in the first YPC production of the show 10 years ago, choreographed the moves for this staging. Washington, who lives in Plymouth, said she understands how people might think such heavy subject inappropriate for music and dance. However, she said, "The Civil Rights movement itself was so rich with music, [within the] African-American community and the African-American church, that it is vital. You couldn't really tell the story without the songs associated with that time."

Knight said over the years YPC's 13- to 21-year-old actors themselves pushed the company away from traditional children's plays like "Jack and the Beanstalk" years ago. YPC focuses on emerging teen issues -- racial injustice, gun violence, sex and even menstruation.

Said Knight, "We are willing to take risks because we know how important it is to go where the teen is and talk about what is relevant to them."

"Freedom Riders" opens Friday, Feb. 6 and runs through Feb. 22. It is being performed at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center at 1900 Nicollet Ave. For more information, call 623-9080 or check their Web site at