Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom"


Ally Sheedy and Damaras Obi

At the end of the week celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and on the evening after the stunning second Women's March in New York City, it was a moving end to the day to see "Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom" in the Sanctuary Theatre at the Center at West Park. It was a dramatization of the story of Lynda Blackmon Lowery who experienced her 15th birthday on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

This one woman performance by Damaras Obi was directed by actor Ally Sheedy and began as a project at La Guardia High School in New York City (the "Fame School") where Ms. Obi was a student in Ms. Sheedy's class. The performance is essentially a dramatization of the young adult book by the same name Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story if the 1965 Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley.  

Both performance  and book make a highly personal portrayal of what it was like to be part of that march including the fear, the physical pain of enduring beatings and the exhilaration of new hopes of freedom being won. Ms. Lowery helps us to understand the importance of teenagers in that crucial struggle for voting rights, being herself arrested 9 times before her 15th birthday. It's also a powerful description of the vicious violence which met the marchers. 

Ms. Obi successfully captures the emotional reality of a teenager having to mature beyond her years in the struggle. Adding richness to the performance was the Riverside Church Inspirational Choir's opening with Freedom Songs of the time with Ms. Obi emerging from the choir to begin the performance. 

There is of course a spiritual connection between the marchers of 1965 and of January 20th, 2018. It's clear as they won their voting rights victory in 1965 the Civil Rights marchers would never  have imagined  that over half a century later, not only would there be such a long road  still to travel but that even what they  had won would be under attack and in some states even reversed. Battles seemingly win have to be refought all over again. 

It's clear that the Trump presidency has unleashed the powers and forces that would like to roll the clock back before 1965.  And disempowerment of African-American voters is a clear part of that agenda.

Groups like the Andrew Goodman Foundation's campaign for Vote Everywhere with organizing work on college campuses across the country are essential to this struggle. ( The foundation founded by the family of Andrew Goodman who was murdered in 1963 in Mississippi working for voting rights. (In 2013, West Park hosted a 50th anniversary commemoration for Andrew who grew up a next door neighbor of the church.)

West Park was a fitting  place for this production given its predecessor Park Church's history as a stop on the "Underground Railroad" sheltering slaves until they could take boats up the Hudson to Canada and freedom. ( Read more about that here .

Very importantly, most of the play's performances were for hundreds of New York City School Children, learning how people their own age had been important in changing history. In a post performance conversation, Ally Sheedy spoke of how moving it was to see the number of Muslim children who clearly have their own struggles to face. 

The week was very representative of what the Center at West Park is all about with "Turning 15.." in the mornings and the genre breaking creativity of the theatre-film-immersive perfomance of Anonymous Ensemble's "Love Liebe Amour" at night. 

The producers of "Turning 15..." hope to take it on the road. That would be a great teaching tool for local communities. In the meantime, the original book is a very valuable resource for understanding a time and movement that can inspire and inform us in our own unavoidable struggle. 

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