Theater: Salt Lake City
The Past is Now
Selma '65 from Pygmalion Productions explores racial tensions that are as relevant today as they were in 1965
Night after night, a young white woman watches news broadcasts about police violence against African- American citizens. Although she lives far away, she is moved to act against the brutality she sees on the screen by joining the protest effort. The year is 1965—but it could just as easily be 2016. The scenario seems all too familiar.
In Selma ’65, playwright Catherine Filloux draws on the story of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist who traveled from Michigan to participate in the famed march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. While driving fellow activist Leroy Moton back to Selma, Liuzzo was killed by a group of Klansmen following behind. Among the Klansmen was an FBI informant, Gary Thomas (‘Tommy’) Rowe. Today, 50 years after the Selma Voting March, Pygmalion Productions brings Liuzzo’s and Rowe’s story to Utah audiences.
Stage director Lane Richins explains, “A number of years ago I directed Seven, an autobiographical composite play by seven different playwrights, Catherine [Filloux] among them. Catherine eventually saw another play I directed, and we became friends. Since I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting material, I asked her to send me some of her work. That’s how I learned about Selma ’65.”
According to Richins, not all of Filloux’s works are even meant to be staged. “Some pieces aren’t easy to visualize,” Richins continues. “But those works appeal to me because they present a challenge—how does one actress portray both a victim and the victim’s murderer? How does an audience keep track of one character who must interact with between 20 and 25 characters the audience never sees? And then there are the dozen locations the character needs to ‘travel’ to during the course of the play. Those are challenges we needed to overcome.”
Luckily, the director found the right actress to take on these challenges. “I’ve known Tracie [Merill-Wilson] for a decade and have performed in two shows with her,” Richins says. “She’s brilliant—and she’s also not afraid to explore all the undercurrents of this show. I auditioned over 40 actresses for the part, and Tracie was able to embody everything I needed. Lots of actors have intelligence, but Tracie has the EQ, or emotional quotient, to make the characters real human beings instead of caricatures. She also knows how to use her body to express subtleties between the characters she portrays. Tracie quite literally does a sensational job, in that she brings powerful sensations to each performance.”
Noting the play’s relevance to current events, Richins turns somber. “This play presents a direct challenge to the audience—a challenge to recognize our collective human rights. It’s not about 1965; it’s about what we learn from history and how we interact with others today. Do we ignore what we hear on the news about violence in our own city? Or do we, like Viola Liuzzo, respond and act? If we don’t learn from history, it tends to come back and bite us. The past becomes the present.”
When the play opened on March 4th, members of the local NAACP were in attendance. “It was important to present this story in a way that wasn’t manipulative of the audience,” says Richins. “We wanted to give our guests proper respect, and cutting out the artifice onstage allowed us to respect them as well as respect the lyricism of the play. It’s poetic—it’s the ‘fever dream of a song.’ When you have a story like this, you don’t want or need an elaborate set. It’s a simple set, but beautiful. Tracie has one costume. There are minimal props. Those choices mean the audience can really focus on the story. And—in the end—those choices create immediacy, a currency that makes the audience feel complicit in the story, to the point that they confront their personal views of race, of humanity. It’s an intense experience. In fact, some audience members don’t know what to say afterward.”
Evidence today suggests that the FBI took great pains to protect Tommy Rowe from prosecution while defaming Liuzzo. Since Liuzzo’s murder has not been widely discussed in Civil Rights era histories, the smear campaign may have worked on some level. However, today there’s a greater interest in Viola Liuzzo and other key figures in the Civil Rights saga.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Kimball Art Center UP: Illiminations of Africa's Wildlife: Its Beauty, Its Struggle to Survive: Photographs by Beverly Joubert.
Big cats, rhinoceros, and elephants are in crisis, facing extinction after years of rampant poaching and habitat loss. As artists, conservationists, and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, Beverly and her husband, Dereck Joubert, have spent decades fighting for these beloved creatures. Through their internationally renowned wildlife films and other conservation efforts, the Jouberts celebrate the stunning beauty and power of these animals, urging viewers to recognize the consequences of inaction.
Gallery MAR UP: Taking Shape, featuring the work of painter Ron Russon and sculptor Joe Norman. AND: It is all Just a Love Contest, work by Nina Tichava.
Julie Nester Gallery UP: Ice, an exhibition of winter scenes inspired by memories of childhood by Phillip Buler.
JGO Gallery UP: Second State: Elaine Coombs and Heather Patterson.
Trove Gallery UPCOMING: New works by Patrick Kramer.
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: Transcendence: Abstraction & Symbolism in the American West. Highlighting works from the NEHMA Collection, this exhibition explores how artists have employed the use of abstraction and symbolism in the American West over the past century (see our review in the November 2015 edition). AND: A Matter of Taste: Art, Kitsch and Culture. Showcasing a wide range of kitsch, kitsch-like, or kitsch-inspired objects dating to the 20th and 21st centuries, this exhibition reveals the permeable and porous boundaries between fine art, kitsch, and popular culture.
Brigham City Museum of Art and History UP: Spirited: Prohibition in America.
The exhibit features Prohibition-era photos, artifacts, interactive touchscreen kiosks, videos and music. Local photographs about liquor and tobacco in Northern Utah from 1850 on will also be on view, specifically Rudolph Keyser’s Saloon (interior view); the Willard Winery and Brewery; the Combination Saloon, Corinne; the Pearl Saloon, Garland; and the Billiard Hall, Brigham City.
Eccles Community Art Center UP: 15th Black & White Statewide Art Competition Exhibition. AND: Ogden School District's Festival of the Arts.
Shaw Gallery UP: We are the People, guest curated by Wendy Red Star, brings together a group of contemporary indigenous artists from both the United States and Canada who are changing and shaping pre-conceived notions about history, rituals and spiritualism. Featuring: Amelia Winger-Bearskin,Elisa Harkins, Tanis S'eiltin, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Duane Linklater, John Feodorov, Peter Morin, Raymond Boisjoly.
HOWA GALLERY UPCOMING: Brian Lindley.
BDAC UP: Illustrators Utah! a juried competition. AND: Will Terry and Jake Parker in the Annex Gallery. AND: Paul Mann and Richard Brown in the Underground Gallery.