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Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

A spirited adaptation joined with gospel songs of an African-American woman’s memoir of her teenage experiences marching for civil rights in 1960’s Alabama.

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Damaras Obi as Lynda Blackmon in a scene from “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” (Photo credit: Rob Brizzell)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“Segregation hurt my family” says the 15-year-old African-American Lynda Blackmon in the new play Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom. She recounts that her mother died during childbirth as she needed a blood transfusion. The local Alabama hospital was for whites only and so blood from a Birmingham hospital was sent on a long bus ride. “It got there 15 minutes too late. My father said that over and over for the rest of his life.” The vociferous segregationist Governor George C. Wallace became the focus of evil to her.

White people say the N word a lot because they want to hurt us. I never use that word.

The adult Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s acclaimed young adult memoir written in collaboration with Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley, Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March was published in 2015.

Though exhibiting its source material’s young adult sensibility, Ally Sheedy’s highly effective stage adaption is totally absorbing for adults as well. Ms. Sheedy shrewdly captures the sense of an adolescent’s voice and structures the presentation as a collection of pointed vignettes flowing from one to another, skillfully imparting personal and historical details.

The production was developed and premiered at New York City’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School for Music, Art, and Performing Arts in 2015. It has since been performed around the country and this engagement is the first stop on a current tour.

Chanté Odum and Claxton Rabb III in a scene from “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” (Photo credit: Rob Brizzell)

Damaras Obi who originally created the role of Lynda magnificently reprises it here. Combining girlish charm with superior singing and acting skills, Ms. Obi is enchanting. She narrates this turbulent and factual story with arresting intensity and flashes of humor.

LaRon Grant, Queade Norah, Chanté Odom, Claxton Rabb III, Renée Reid and Brian Baylor all vibrantly portray the multitude of other characters. White figures such as teachers, judges and prison guards are enacted while wearing eerie white face masks. The entire company periodically breaks into song and these numbers include “We Shall Overcome,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and composer Joshuah Brian Campbell’s original number “Sing Out, March On.”

Since there were severe repercussions against blacks for protesting against racism such as getting fired from their jobs, civil rights leaders began having high school students take up the challenge as they wouldn’t be prone to such actions. Eventually government officials arrested them and held them overnight. Things got worse as sending them to far off prison camps became routine where they would often be contained in stifling “iron boxes.” Beatings with Billy clubs, assaults with cattle prods and institutional humiliations are memorialized as well.

We learn all of this from Lynda’s plain-spoken teenaged perspective. The climax occurs with the March on Selma where celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Bennett, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary were in attendance. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act makes for a happy ending of sorts.

Director Fracaswell Hyman has a great command of the visual through his picturesque staging that energetically coordinates the appealing movement and choreography of the cast with musical sequences.

LaRon Grant, Claxton Rabb III, Chanté Odum, Candace Haynes, Chelsea Margaux Smith and Damaras Obi in a scene from “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” (Photo credit: Rob Brizzell)

The stage is bare except for chairs, a bench, a table and a platform in the center where Lynda occasionally proclaims. On the back wall, striking images of Kristen Ferguson’s haunting projection design are shown. Riots, Ku Klux Klansmen, various marches, Martin Luther King Jr. and other well-known people of the era are displayed achieving pictorial scope.

Caitlin Smith Rapoport’s lighting design substantively evokes the past with its mix of dim and bright tones. Sound designer Megan Cully adeptly renders the often bracing effects and her fine incidental music.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom starkly dramatizes a tumultuous and horrendous era in American history with resonant simplicity and sadly reinforces that the nation still grapples with these concerns.

Before the actual performance, there was a thrilling mini-concert of gospel songs by The Riverside Inspirational Choir that included “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus” and “Oh Freedom!” This choral group is affiliated with The Riverside Church where Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom was performed during the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom (January 19-20, 2019)

The Riverside Theatre at The Riverside Church, 91 Claremont Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-870-6792 or visit https://turning15atriverside.eventbrite.com

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (621 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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