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Larry Littany Litt
Written by Toby Armour
Directed by Joan Kane
Theater for the New City
155 First Ave., NYC
Reviewed June 16, 2023 by Larry Litt
Clara Francesca (Sylvie) and Arianne Banda (Terry) are college-aged volunteers in CORE-SNCC's effort to register Black voters in 1964. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
I’ve heard it asked, “Can good hearted white people’s guilt help overcome systemic racism?” The answer in part as presented by playwright Toby Armour in her drama "Freedom Summer" is yes as long as they can overcome their white nervousness and paranoia. That’s not so easy to do as shown in this historical document.
"Freedom Summer," a new play by Toby Armour, is named for the civil rights campaign when a bunch of mostly northern college students heroically attempted to increase the number of registered Black voters in Mississippi by conducting a registration drive there. The play is inspired by the playwright's own experiences in the campaign as a civil rights worker.
During the summer of 1964, semi-hysterical Sylvie (Clara Francesca), a graduate student at a respected northern university, decides to go to Mississippi to register voters. She knows no one in any of the black organizations that are there on the ground. She’s basically on her own. She wants to help but doesn’t know anything. It’s also a high state of danger for people who want to upset the Jim Crow old boy order. Out of state voter registrars are targeted and several have been killed. Still this is what strong willed yet naive Sylvie wants. She craves the adventure, the being a part of it all, of real politics American style.
When she arrives in Jackson, Mississippi no one at CORE_SNCC headquarters knows her or anything about her. They think she’s a spy. What can she do to prove she’s a dedicated activist? Then she meets Terry (Arianne Banda), a cool, level headed black woman who eventually learns to trust Sylvie. It’s a bonding through shared fear and deprivation.
Debra Khan-Bey as Fannie Lou Hamer. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
This would simply be a play about an American summer if it were not for a reading by Debra Khan-Bey of the famous Fannie Lou Hamer speech about her imprisonment and beatings. Khan-Bey’s emotional dissertation sent chills through my spine. She’s a remarkable actor who knows how to move an audience.
Joan Kane’s direction gave the bare stage places to perform in many different locations. All in all it was worth the visit back to Jackson in the Summer of 1964. And still there’s much to be learned about organizing our efforts to overcome racism today.
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