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Too Heavy for Your Pocket

The Leaders of the Freedom Rides

Posted on: September 22nd, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

 

See James L. Farmer and other key figures discuss the impact of the Freedom Rides and nonviolent protest in the Civil Rights movement.

 

James L. Farmer Jr.

JAMES L. FARMER, JR. (1920-1999)

Son of the first African-American to earn a doctorate in Texas, Farmer earned his divinity degree from Howard  University, where he studied of Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolent protest. Farmer co-founded The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1940s.

In 1961 he became CORE’s National Director, making him a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement.Although segregation on interstate buses was declared illegal in 1946, the practice was widely enforced in the deep south.

Farmer conceived of a way to bring national attention to this ongoing infringement. The initial plan was a single  trip on 2 buses with 13 riders—male and female, black and white—beginning in Washington, D.C. and ending in New Orleans. Over the next six months, the Freedom Ride movement would grow to 60 rides by 450 people, with over 300 arrests. As events were televised nationwide, support for the movement grew. Farmer looked upon the Freedom Rides as his proudest achievement, noting that "Bobby Kennedy had the Interstate Commerce Commission issue an order, with teeth in it, that he could enforce.”

Farmer later resigned from CORE leadership and distanced himself as the group became more militant. Under President Nixon, he accepted a position in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, but resigned in frustration. Farmer received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1998.

 

DIANE NASH (b. 1938)

Diane Nash

Raised in Chicago by a middle-class Catholic family, Nash transferred from Howard to Fisk University in 1959. The segregation she faced in Tennessee led her to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. Nash protested in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins before becoming a leader of the Freedom Rides. After the CORE Freedom Ride was stopped in Alabama, Nash believed it was crucial that the rides continue, so she coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride with the goal of finishing the original CORE itinerary, from Birmingham to New Orleans. Nash recruited and trained the riders, ensuring that all the riders had made a will before getting onto the busses. She also coordinated with national figures and the press. Nash did not actually ride on the bus, but met the group in Montgomery. Here, she helped to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak to the riders. After the Freedom Rides, Nash continued to work for desegregation and voting rights in Alabama. She returned to Chicago, where she works in education and fair housing advocacy.

 

John Lewis

JOHN LEWIS (b.1940)

The son of tenant farmers from Pike County, AL, Lewis attended American Baptist Theological Seminary in

Nashville. At 19, Lewis was arrested in protests with the Nashville Student Movement. Lewis joined the original CORE buses, and in Rock Hill South Carolina, he was the first of the riders to be assaulted for entering a whites-only waiting room. Lewis then left the ride several days before crossing into Alabama to interview for a fellowship. Back in Nashville, he learned that the bus he had been on was firebombed in Anniston. He joined the Nashville riders and convinced friends and mentors to join. Lewis stayed with the Nashville group until Jackson, Mississippi, where he was arrested and imprisoned at Parchman Farm.

After the Freedom Rides, Lewis became the chairman of SNCC and became a key leaders of the Civil Rights movement, organizing the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March. In 1986, John Lewis was elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he continues to serve today.

 

PARCHMAN PRISON

A woman in the back of a paddy wagon.

The Freedom Riders sent to Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) would likely been known of the difficult conditions ahead. Historian David Oshinsky states, “throughout the American South, Parchman farm is synonymous with punishment and brutality.” Established in 1901, Parchman occupied 28 square miles of delta valley land. Approximately 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned in Parchman in 1961. Because the government and the media were watching the situation, they were spared the worst abuses of other prisoners; nevertheless, they were confined in isolation from each other, forbidden exercise, served inedible food, and harassed by the officials. When they sang freedom songs from their cells, the guards seized their mattresses in retaliation. Despite attempts by authorities to break the spirits of the Freedom Riders, it had a reverse effect of building their resolve and solidarity. The Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman currently operates with a maximum capacity of 3,543, including  minimum, medium, close custody, and death row inmates.

 


Too Heavy For Your Pocket begins performances at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre- The Black Box Theatre on September 15, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket


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Margot Bordelon, director of TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET. Photo by Jenny Anderson.

Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? Why did you want to become a theatre director? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you? 

Margot Bordelon: I was born in Everett, Washington, a small city 25 miles north of Seattle. I got my BFA in Theater from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and then (many years later) an MFA in Directing from the Yale School of Drama. I first started directing when I was a junior in college. I was an acting major and auditioned to participate in the Original Works track offered by my program, which meant I took playwriting and directing courses in addition to my core acting classes. I was originally interested in being an actor/playwright, but I discovered directing and loved it. I liked having a hand in every aspect of a production. When you direct, you get to work in multiple mediums at once – acting, dance, music, design. I’ve found this deeply satisfying. My mentor at Cornish was a brilliant director named Sheila Daniels. She first introduced me to Viewpoints and techniques for devising original work. She opened my eyes to the power of expressive rather than literal staging. There are exercises she taught me that I still use in my rehearsal processes. Her impact on my development as an artist is immeasurable.

 

TS: Why did you choose to direct Jiréh Breon Holder's play, Too Heavy for Your Pocket? What do you think this play is about?

 MB: In 2016 Jiréh and I collaborated on his Yale thesis production, Some Bodies Travel, and we had a blast together. When he sent me Too Heavy, I instantly fell in love with it. I find his voice, poetry, politics, and imagination incredibly compelling. He is truly the real deal -- in addition to being a generous collaborator.  For me, Too Heavy is a play about family, community, faith, struggle, and ultimately about personal responsibility. One of the most important questions I think this play asks is: where does our responsibility lie? When injustice thrives all around us, do we invest further in our friends and family? Or do we fight for change on a national scale? Do we have a bigger responsibility to our immediate community, or to society at large? And what does it mean to contribute when you’re without a financial safety net? What is the personal cost of progress?

 

TS: How are you collaborating with your design team -- can you give us a sense of how your production will manifest visually? Do you see the play as written in the style of magic realism? Will there be original music?

MB: One of the first stage directions in the play is “grass everywhere, even indoors.” Our wonderful scenic designer Reid Thompson and I want to explore this idea fully by turning the Underground space into an installation of sorts. Grass throughout the entire space, with the images of trees and nature surrounding the audience. The script says that the audience should feel like guests, and that’s what we’re attempting to do—create a space that is fully inhabited by our characters that we invite the audience into. I think of the play as poetic naturalism. There are aspects of the piece that are fully naturalistic (like Sally cooking a meal), but the transitions and moments of song live in a more poetic realm. Ultimately, we’re hoping to create a poetic space with the set design; costumes that realistically ground us in 1961 and lights and sound that function both realistically as well as poetically. And yes—some original music!

 

TS: Will you give us some insight into your process as a director? What kind of research did you have to do in order to direct this play? How will you use rehearsal time on this particular show? 

MB: I’ve gotten such an education researching this show. Of course, I’ve done extensive reading about the Freedom Riders and about the Civil Rights movement as a whole, and it’s rich, compelling, topical material. I’ve also gotten very specific about Nashville history, Fisk University, the role of the church, and life in the U.S. in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But the subject matter of the play extends well beyond all of this. This is a history piece written for a contemporary audience. Jiréh was as influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement as the Civil Rights Movement. We’ll spend the first few days at the table naming the facts the play offers us both about time period and character. I like to begin from a place where we’re all approaching the play objectively before we begin getting subjective. We’ll share information about the world of the play culled from our individual research. With this piece, it’s essential to ground ourselves historically in the place and time. Then the actors will create character biographies based on the facts of the play, their research, and their imaginations. We’ll spend some time on our feet doing movement based ensemble-building exercises and character work. And then we’ll dive into scene work.

The cast of TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET. Photo by Jenny Andrson

TS: How do you collaborate with a writer on a new work? Do you expect there to be any rewriting during the rehearsal and preview periods? How involved are you in the rewriting process on a new work? 

MB: Long before rehearsals begin, I read multiple drafts of the script and go back and forth with a writer offering questions and thoughts. Too Heavy has gone through a variety of drafts since Jiréh and I started working on it over a year ago, and it’s been a joy to watch it grow and change. We worked on it at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta last winter, and that allowed us to see scenes and moments that really landed as well as those that could be further clarified. A new play is an ever-evolving organism, and I’m certain the play will undergo more changes once we’re in the room with actors. They will bring experiences and perspectives to the piece that will most certainly affect it.

 

TS: I’m curious how you understand the relationship of the two couples to each other and how the men and women relate to each other in this play? It seems to me both couples (Bowzie and Evelyn, and Tony and Sally) are symbiotic -- would you agree? 

MB: Absolutely. The foursome in this play is incredibly tightknit. Bowzie and Sally have known each other since they were small children, and Bowzie and Tony have known each other since they were teenagers. They have grown up together—they are family.  They are an interdependent community and (spoiler alert!) when Bowzie leaves, their ecosystem is thrown into a dangerous imbalance.

Eboni Flowers and Brandon Gill in rehearsal for TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET. Photo by Jenny Anderson

TS: What traits did you need in casting the actors for the four roles in Too Heavy for Your Pocket?

MB: With all four characters, we looked for actors who had incredible heart, wonderful senses of humor, and deep wells of emotional availability. It’s a true ensemble show, and so it was essential that we find collaborators that are dedicated to team playing, while also being forces of nature in and of themselves.

 

TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to direct? 

MB: I’m a firm believer in Stella Adler’s philosophy that your growth as an artist is synonymous with your growth as a human being. I love going to see plays, but I also love reading, and watching films and television, going to museums, protesting, seeing live music, and spending time in nature. I’ve recently begun meditating, and that’s been helping me stay inspired while finding balance. My advice to young directors is that, in addition to producing and directing your own work as much as possible, spend time acting and writing. It’s invaluable to have experience being on the other side of the table. Try to learn on a visceral level about your own expectations and what you’re asking of others.


Too Heavy For Your Pocket begins performances at The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/ Black Box Theatre on September 15, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Roundabout Underground, Too Heavy for Your Pocket


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Now in its eleventh year of producing emerging playwrights in the Black Box, the Roundabout Underground program has achieved a stunning degree of success since we mounted Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate as the inaugural Underground production in 2007. In the years since their Underground productions, all twelve of our Underground alumni have gone on to fruitful and lucrative writing careers, whether for the stage or for the screen. Over the past two seasons alone, three of these alumni have made their Broadway debuts: Stephen Karam (The Humans, 2016 Tony Award® for Best Play and Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize); Joshua Harmon (Significant Other); and Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen, 2017 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical). Both The Humans and Significant Other began in our Laura Pels Theatre, just upstairs of the Black Box at the Steinberg Center. In addition, Underground alumna Lindsey Ferrentino made her debut at the National Theatre in London this past spring with her play Ugly Lies the Bone, which premiered here in the Underground in 2015. Both Lindsey and Joshua Harmon, in fact, will be returning to the Laura Pels Theatre later this season with new plays, both of which we commissioned: Lindsey’s Amy and the Orphans and Joshua’s Skintight. I am so thrilled to watch as our relationships with the Underground writers have grown over the years and given rise to these and other magnificent successes at Roundabout and beyond.

Needless to say, the Underground program holds a special place in my heart, and I couldn't be happier to welcome Jiréh into this family with his extraordinary play. Set in Nashville, Tennessee, during the Civil Rights Movement, Too Heavy for Your Pocket follows four black Nashvillians who encounter the Movement far closer to home than they expected--and approach it with mixed feelings. To Jiréh’s characters in 1961, the Civil Rights Movement isn’t yet the world-famous triumph that we know it to be today. It’s still a revolution in the making with its own challenges and struggles, and the fates of the Movement’s activists are yet uncertain. For prospective protesters, the risks to their person and property are high, the potential sacrifices of livelihood and career are large, and the road to equality and reform is long. Through the perspectives of two vividly-drawn families, Jiréh confronts the realities of protest and the price of social change, reminding us that the true work of revolution often originates not on the floors of our Capitol buildings but in our church basements, classrooms, and homes.

At a time when the question of the cost of protest is an incredibly urgent one, Too Heavy for Your Pocket asks us to face our own attitudes toward political activism and consider what we might be willing to forfeit in the name of justice and social progress. The freedoms of speech and assembly often come at a price for those who need them most, and Jiréh’s play, with vibrant and captivating storytelling, deftly captures the nuances of this contradiction. Too Heavy for Your Pocket serves as a gripping reminder that while the Civil Rights Movement may be decades behind us, the lessons it provides us for our current and future political atmospheres are timeless.

Too Heavy for Your Pocket, under the direction of the exceptional Margot Bordelon, will undoubtedly continue and deepen the Underground’s tradition of excellence, and I am so excited for you to experience the phenomenal work of this creative team. Like all good theatre, Jiréh’s play is sure to spark discussion and inspire a richer understanding of our past and our future. As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts on our season, so please continue to email me at ArtisticOffice@roundabouttheatre.org with your reactions. I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.

I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!

Sincerely,
Todd Haimes
Artistic Director/CEO


Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Too Heavy for Your Pocket


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