Performance Parallels Past and Present Prejudice

CIVIL RIGHTS: THE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Sometimes it only takes one voice to speak for thousands.

That is what a performance called “The Right to Dream” achieves, as it sends audiences back in time to the Civil Rights Movement — a period during the 1950s and 1960s when black citizens across the nation demanded equality in the face of injustice.

Seattle-based company Living Voices hosted three shows in SCC’s Black Box Theater on Jan. 22, doing justice to their mantra of combining “dynamic solo performances with archival film and sound, turning history into a moving and personal journey.”

In “The Right to Dream,” actor Bob Williams delivers a poignant one-man show as he portrays the fictional Raymond Hollis in call-and-response fashion to footage and voices from a video playing above him.

The audience follows Hollis from boyhood to manhood as he navigates the mid-century South as a black individual. The story he tells is an amalgamation of entirely true anecdotes from real people during the Civil Rights Movement.

The Right to Dream

This was the era of “separate but equal,” which, in the words of Williams, was “a lot less equal and a whole lot more separate.”

Hollis is introduced as a young boy whose parents met during World War II, when his father liberated towns as a soldier and his mother worked as a nurse. At the beginning of the story, Hollis’ family moves next door to a white family including a boy named Jack, who Hollis remembers as “his first best friend.”

One night, Hollis and Jack run into a movie theater together, but Hollis is stopped when an employee informs him that this section of the theater is white-only. Hollis can see Jack crying, and says he “never really thought of Jack as white before.”

Another day, Hollis and his father are preparing to head to a military reunion. His father is in full uniform, but as they begin to board a bus, the driver refuses to let them on. To Hollis’ surprise, his father talks back, pointing out his wartime accolades — but it’s no use as the bus driver doesn’t consider him a hero. “We never did make it to that reunion.” Hollis says.

Protests

Hollis eventually relocates, and throughout his education becomes highly respected by his peers. This leads to his involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC (pronounced “snick”).

These students often held peaceful protests by way of sit-ins, where black students would occupy white-only areas and black and white students would sit amongst each other.

In “The Right to Dream,” Hollis accompanies a fellow SNCC member named Michael to Woolworth’s lunch counter.

When a waitress coldly announces they “don’t serve Negroes,” Hollis humorously replies by saying, “That’s okay ma’am, because you see, we don’t eat Negroes.”

As the jeers of onlookers spark violence, however, acid gets thrown into Michael’s eyes and blinds him. Hollis soon realizes the person who threw the acid is his old friend, Jack — who no longer recognizes him.

These protests were not limited to sit-ins. Hollis goes on to say there were kneel-ins at churches, read-ins at public libraries and even swim-ins at public pools.

One such swim-in occurred in 1964, when a group of black and white students protested by swimming together in a white-only outdoor pool at the Monson Motor Lodge, which the lodge’s owner to responded to by pouring glass jugs of hydrochloric acid into the water.

In an article written by Delores Handy for @@@[email protected]@@, a swimmer named Mimi Jones, who was a 16-year-old student at the time, chronicles her memory of the incident.

“It is as fresh in my mind as the morning dew, because when the acid was poured in the pool, the water began to bubble up,” Jones says.

The Right to Vote

In certain Southern states, citizens hoping to register to vote were required to pass near-impossible eligibility tests with vague instructions designed to cause confusion.

For instance, a 1964 Louisiana literacy test allowed 10 minutes for 30 questions where one wrong answer meant failure. It instructed applicants to draw interlocking shapes, cross out words in certain ways and follow instructions such as “Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.”

In other tests, applicants had to recite a section of the Constitution by heart.

In each case, the grading depended on the satisfaction of the individual administer, which meant that correct answers given by black citizens could be deemed wrong while incorrect answers given by white citizens could be overlooked.

Civil Rights and Television

Concurrent with the peak of the Civil Rights Movement was the peak in popularity of American television, which was largely created by and for white audiences. Occasionally, however, black actors would have the chance to shine in leading roles.

One such example is an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” entitled “I Am the Night — Color Me Black.”

Broadcast in 1964, the same year that the Civil Rights Act outlawed public segregation, the episode dealt with a white man who is wrongfully convicted of killing his bigoted neighbor in self-defense.

The small town is enveloped in a mysterious darkness, even at nine o’clock in the morning. After the convicted man is hanged, much to the delight of the predominately-white townspeople, the black reverend explains to the townspeople that it is their own hate that caused the sky to darken.

At the end, a radio broadcast can be heard informing listeners that dark cloud is also spreading over hotspots for hate across the globe — from Berlin, Germany to Birmingham, Alabama.

In the episode’s closing narration, host Rod Serling calls hate a “sickness,” urging viewers to “look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.”

Today

Even the most subtle bi-products of prejudice may be encountered on a daily basis without one realizing it.

The color beige, for instance, is still referred to as “nude,” while remaining the standard skin tone for items ranging from bandages and earpieces to prosthetic wounds and limbs in costume stores.

Williams recalls a booth he stopped at during a recent trip to Las Vegas, where one’s face could be superimposed on to different bodies on magazine covers. “Almost all of them had white flesh,” he says. “There was one I could be, (which) was the astronaut.”

A Legacy

Williams says his favorite part of Living Voices comes with talking as fast as he can to fit as much information into the session as possible, and afterwards, witnessing the change that has taken place in the faces of the audience.

One audience member was SCC faculty member Dr. Gloria Ngezaho, who leads the Office of Employee Engagement, Equity, and Organizational Development.

Ngezaho felt that the performance was “grounding” in an otherwise hectic world, and mentions the age-old “talk” that parents of color in the U.S. must have with their children.

“For me, as a black father, I’m still having to tell my kids, ‘you still live in a society where you’re not fully accepted’,” Ngezaho says, and notes the stressful burden that comes with making sure “they live to see 21, and 25, and 35 and 40.”

Ngezaho says it’s important to revisit history, because it’s easy to forget in the bustle of day-to-day life.

The last line spoken by Hollis in “The Right to Dream” offers a simple proposal that rings true in any context of prejudice: “What will you do?”

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Living Voices.

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