‘Freedom Summer’ is stunning theater
Linda Armstrong | 2/25/2021, 11:30 a.m.
Have you ever witnessed a piece of theater that you felt conveyed a great deal of deep points on a number of levels? That’s what I felt, watching the virtual premiere of Cynthia G. Robinson’s production “Freedom Summer,” performed by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (the same company behind the beloved National Black Theatre Festival/NBTF). Its artistic director, Jackie Alexander, who is also the director of the North Carolina Black Repertory company, formerly the artistic director of the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn and, prior to that, an accomplished playwright, serves as director on this dramatic two-character play. Alexander has always presented works that spoke to Black issues in a way that was candid, vivid and relevant, and he continues to do so with “Freedom Summer.” Robinson’s play tells the story of two Black sisters: Carrie, a brown-skinned, college-aged young woman; and Nora, her older sister who has the complexion and hair of a white girl and passes herself off as white. Nora (whose birth name is Theonia) moves from Jackson, Mississippi to Boston, into a white neighborhood, gets engaged to a white man named James, and is about to get married—a wedding to which none of her family is invited.
As the 90-minute production begins we are introduced to Nora, and the setting is the summer of 1964 when activists were heading South to protest and to help Black people register to vote. It was also around the time that the bodies of three Civil Rights workers who were killed in Mississippi were found. At this point, Black people took different approaches to the situation. You could either become an activist and try to help your people register to vote, especially after the voting rights amendment had been signed. (Of course, doing this in the South, you faced racist whites who would not hesitate to kill you, as they did the Civil Rights workers and Blacks who they deemed troublemakers.) You could choose to be a Black person who just took the degradation and disrespect and kept your mouth closed so that no one would target you and your family. Or, if you had a complexion that enabled you to pass for white, you could claim to be white and leave your home environment to try to have the “privileged life that white people seemed to enjoy. Or, there was still one more type of avenue you could follow: you could be able to pass for white, but let people know definitively that you are Black and be treated with the disrespect and disregard that Blacks warranted in the South, according to the white racist.
Hearing these two very different sisters talk, you found out that these approaches all occurred within their nuclear family. What’s so interesting about this play is that each character pays the consequences for the decisions that each make. When it comes to dealing with racism, if you are Black, there doesn’t seem to have been a way back in those days where you could come out on top. If you decided to pass as white, you were looked upon by your own people as ashamed and deceptive. And as Nora tells Carrie that she will marry this white man and live with these white neighbors, who accept her as being white, Carrie confronts her with the question—what happens when you have a child that is my complexion and our father’s complexion, and your white husband and neighbors discover the truth? Then you’ll see how mean they can be.
Robinson gives each sister some very good arguments about why they feel the way they do. At first, Nora comes off as very self-centered, but as you go deeper into the story you find out what happened in her life that devastated her to the point of driving her to pass for white in order to try to find “happiness.”
Carrie, on the other hand is younger, but much more mature on many levels, and her parents raised her to see what was going on and have a pride in being Black and working hard to take care of your family. While her parents didn’t seek to rock the boat, she is a young woman with a strong sense of justice and a strong sense of duty to help her people in the moment, and it is admirable.
The two characters are explosively and beautifully played by Nikyla Boxley as Carrie and Mariah Guillmette as Nora. The emotions that they portray will touch your soul! Alexander maintains a cohesion to the rhythm of the story. The overall creative team does a brilliant job and includes Scott Haynes as the technical director, Lizbeth Ramirez—set design, and the set was particularly exquisite; Aja Jackson—lighting design; Frenchie Slade—costume design; and Juan Isler—sound design. You only have a short window to see this fantastic, relevant production. It plays virtually at ncblackrep.org through Feb. 28; tickets are $15.