Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963

By on 28 January, 2019 in Art, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

For the first time in the history of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, there are two plays by the same playwright (other than Shakespeare, of course) being performed in the repertory. On Friday, we attended the premiere of the first of them, Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 by Christina Ham.

We both think that it may be the best thing we have ever seen at ASF. All of the roles were performed by students from the Montgomery Public Schools.

A few blocks of thinking about this great work, which runs through February 13.

1. The writing and direction were great.

According to Christina Ham’s website, Four Little Girls was originally directed by Tony Award winning actress Phylicia “Clair Huxtable” Rashad and performed in front of a sold-out audience at the Kennedy Center to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Birmingham’s infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. It was simultaneously presented in 47 states across the country and streamed worldwide to commemorate the bombing with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Attorney General Eric Holder conducting the post-show discussion in Birmingham.

Although we consider ourselves enthusiastic amateur civil rights historians, we were unfamiliar with the play. Ham seems to be a phenom. We’d very much like to go see her Nina Simone piece, Four Women, which is also upcoming at ASF.

Although much (most, maybe) credit for our enjoyment of Four Little Girls goes to its cast for the great performance (more on them in just a second), it’s important to note the authorial and directing choices which add interest to the piece. The staging makes powerful use of historical and contemporary images which serve as background. It uses an interesting structure for much of the narration where performers alternate in delivering lines, creating paragraphs that are collectively generated. We’re not sure how much was in the writing and how much in the direction (by Tangela Large), but the resulting combination was exceptional and memorable.

Other than the titular girls, each performer plays multiple roles. While the cast serves largely as a shifting collective during the play (with important differences, particularly along racial lines), the play itself is designed to highlight the often-overlooked individuality of the four girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. They are Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia D. Morris Wesley, and Carole Robertson. A bit of their tragically foreshortened stories are told here – enough to reveal their humanity and show the importance of the individual narratives at the base of horror and loss, inspiring our ongoing struggle.

2. The Montgomery Public Schools have some amazing talent.

Despite the onslaught of negative headlines, there are incredible young people in our schools. This all-student cast really showed off some of the best our city has to offer. They’ve been working on this production since October, and it showed throughout the pro-level singing, dancing and acting. Charles Hunter was a great dancer, and we were especially impressed by Jhordyn Long as Denise McNair and Jalyn Crosby as Addie Mae Collins. But to single anyone out almost belies how great everyone was. There weren’t any weak links.

It’s a multiethnic cast, including a poignant and performance by Mariban Escalante, who helped remind us of the timelessness of the struggle for justice. The small group of white actors, including Somer Deason and Mason Jeffers, summon anger that transports you to the 1960s Birmingham, and they show courage in their willingness to inhabit hostile positions, even using the n-word. The first time elicited something like a collective and audible gasp from the audience – something we’d never really experienced before, especially not at ASF.

Credit goes to ASF for this partnership with the school system. We assume that Rick Dildine, Artistic Director, and Todd Schmidt, Executive Director, have something to do with it. We hope this sort of thing is ongoing and provides enrichment opportunities to our city’s students while spotlighting the incredible talents attending our schools.

3. The music is good.

There’s a lot of music, but it never gets tiresome. There are classic hymns refreshingly delivered without irony or exploitation, and songs connected to the civil rights movement in a way that is vibrant and not nostalgic. We especially liked the performances of “Wade in the Water,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “How I Got Over,” and “Oh, Freedom.” These important songs, roots calling all the way back to the hopes and humanity of enslaved Africans, are some of our country’s most indispensable heritage. It’s nice to hear them performed so reverentially while also treated as living documents.

As a whole, the students displayed outstanding vocal talent. The solos were uniformly good, and the cast sounded great as an ensemble. While they were at it, they executed some nicely done choreography in a tight space with so many people on stage for the entire hour-long show.

In addition to the musical narrative, there are explicit connections made to movement moments: Freedom Rides, March on Washington, etc. These all feel informative and provide both factual context and emotional enhancement to the moment of the bombing, which looms over the entire show.

4. We want to see more things like this.

There have been a few moments over the years when ASF has not been great. It seemed like a low point when they brought in an Elvis impersonator in 2011, and we weren’t thrilled by the “leather and spikes” MacBeth in 2013 or the problematic gender politics of “Taming of the Shrew” in 2013 or that play about NASCAR in 2016. Still, at other times, ASF has created some wonderful memories and experiences. We loved Rodney Clark as King Lear in 2015. We raved about the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2012. We loved an outdoor performance of Macbeth in the garden in 2011. And sometimes, we end up in the middle. We’re comfortable admitting when we’re on the fence. Gatsby in 2014 was okay, and we ended up publishing a decision-making matrix about Twelfth Night when we trying to decide how to spend our entertainment dollars in 2013.

But Four Little Girls is a home run, of the sort that Addie Mae Collins might have hit. No matter what you think of past shows that you’ve seen at ASF, you should go see this one. It’s the most dynamic and interesting and, dare we say it, important performance that we’ve seen at the theater during our decade in Montgomery. It’s an important civil rights document, and it contains a number of stellar performances by MPS students. Get your tickets ASAP.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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