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.
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.
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