"A theatre is the most important house in the world because that's where people are shown what they could be if they wanted and what they'd like to be if they dared and what they really are."
-- Tove Jansson [Finnish author]
In the Alabama Shakespeare Festival audience on opening night of Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 was Sarah Collins Rudolph, a survivor and the sister of one of the victims of the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that became a vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement. -- She and an enrapt audience witnessed an important retelling of the event that showed how Ms. Jansson's pronouncement can transform both actors and audience.
Dr. Angela Davis wants the world to think about what might have become of Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia D. Morris Wesley, and Denise McNair; and is bothered that "their names have been virtually erased" and that they are known only as "the four Black girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing." -- And Christina Ham's 2011 play does just that; as their youthful dreams come to life in the midst of the segregationist political climate of the 1960s, we see them bursting with promise, their confident idealism that they can become doctors, professors, fashion experts, or professional baseball players despite the world around them that squelches most any attempt at success.
Deftly directed by Tangela Large from the University of West Georgia, the play features a large ensemble of gifted actors made up entirely of Montgomery Public School students, whose energy and commitment to the subject matter challenged the audience to draw upon the past to help reconcile the racial divide that is still too evident today. -- Crystaliana Coats [also from West Georgia] provides vigorous choreography for the able ensemble. Joining Tom Rodman [lighting] and Chris Lane [sound], ASF has enlisted a number of other Montgomery artists to bring the production to life: Charles Eddie Moncreif III from ASU designed the flexible platform set and stunning archival projections that punctuate the action; costume designer Val Winkelman from AUM provides period and character driven costumes in a neutral mix of grey and beige for the ensemble, while giving the featured characters more colorful attire; and ASU retiree Joel Jones guides the stimulating music.
The four main roles -- Carole [Trinity Ross], Addie Mae [Jalyn Crosby], Cynthia [Antonisia Collins], Denise [Jhordyn Long] -- and the survivor Sarah [Gaia Moore], emerge as fully realized individuals: clever and intelligent young women on the brink of adulthood who want to take their proper place in the world. They are abetted by the multi-talented ensemble actors who each play a variety of roles in the numerous vignettes that are dramatized, sung and danced [special notice for dancer extraordinaire Charles Hunter: a talent to watch in the future].
Nurtured by family and friends and church, the challenges they face from others and the persistence of Freedom Marches, lunch counter sit-ins, school segregation, separate soda fountains, and bombings don't sway them from their pursuits. -- In a little over an hour, we witness them in various encounters, often energized by songs: "Wade in the Water", "Amazing Grace". "Blessed Assurance" among them.
History refuses to go away. We need to revisit even its most stressful moments in order to see them afresh and consider the devastating effects on our society, and to realize that there is a lot of work yet to be done to ensure they don't happen again. The divisiveness of the past seems all too familiar today.
Though we know the outcome of Four Little Girls... from the beginning, the impressively talented company's heartfelt interpretation of James Weldon Johnson's Black National Anthem -- "Lift Every Voice and Sing" -- that ends the play, gives us a hope of transformation that brought the audience to tears and a rousing standing ovation.