Another "World Premier" at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and with a total of only twelve performances, Freedom Rider opened in front of several of the original Freedom Riders and other dignitaries on Friday night.
Co-produced with New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company, and directed by one of its founders, Ricardo Khan [his production of Fly at ASF in 2018 was a powerful depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen], this new play tracks the lives of these heroic Civil Rights activists in 1961 as they made the decision to protest segregated bus terminals and restrooms and lunch counters in the South, trained in non-violent behavior, and learned along their journey from Washington, DC to the Deep South that their mixed racial groups made a huge impact on both the movement and on their individual lives.
As our country has become so divisive on racial issues, it is imperative as ASF Artistic Director Rick Dildine reminded the opening night audience that "we have to tell our stories" lest they be forgotten or reduced to historical footnotes.
The episodic script is a collaborative effort by Mr. Khan, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Murray Horwitz, Nathan Louis Jackson, and Nikkole Salter. Filled with many familiar protest songs and period references, and with lengthy exposition that verges on a history lesson for audiences to absorb, its major strengths are demonstrated in intimate scenes between teenaged "riders" and their parents and peers where they are forced to confront their purposeful decisions to embark on the trip South and defend their need to carry on the legacy of their recent ancestors. -- What started for some of them as simply the right thing to do gradually becomes a more dangerous reality that will test their commitment as well as their purpose.
Played on Beowulf Boritt's open-space set with moveable furniture that accommodates numerous locations, with Myrna Colley-Lee's period costumes, and stunning archival projections by Katherine Freer, the production's simplicity allows us to concentrate on the serious events and the real people involved.
The acting ensemble representing the Freedom Riders, their families, and assorted people on both sides of the racial divide, are a fine-tuned group. Individual characters may be sympathetic or detestable, and their interactions garner appropriate reactions, but our attention is focused on the play's subject matter and the fact that these important accomplishments in the 1960s have yet to be completely resolved. As one character remarks: "What happens to us once the freedom fighters leave?" Stay tuned.