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.
Pygmalion Theatre Company’s “Selma ’65” continues through March 19th at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City. A ”Talk Back” session will follow the March 12th performance featuring playwright Catherine Filloux, joined via Skype by Gary May, author of The Informant (a biography of Tommy Rowe). Tickets are available at arttix.org
Ruth Christensen writes full time for Imagine Learning, an education-based software company in Provo. She also works as a freelance writer, musician, and teacher after having taught vocal music for many years at BYU, UVU, and SUU.