Have you ever witnessed a production and thought, “This is so moving, so impressive, so stirring and informative – this is something that can educate people and make them realize their power That’s what I felt as I watched a full-dress rehearsal of “Turning 15 On The Road To Freedom,” the true story of Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who was 14 years old when she took part in the Civil Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama and turned 15 while participating in marches, including “Bloody Sunday.” The production is based on Blackmon Lowery’s book “Turning 15 On The Road To Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March” as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley, and was developed for the stage by an actress best known for her roles in “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,”—Ally Sheedy. Sheedy has taught theater at La Guardia High School for the Arts and is currently teaching film at City College in New York.

Blackmon Lowery’s story is told through a narrator accompanied by dramatic reenactments. It is a gripping story, packed with amazing, showstopping deliveries of gospel and songs from the Civil Rights Movement. And this production educates audiences on how the Civil Rights Movement was also a children’s movement.

In this production Blackmon Lowery lays out in black and white,what the Klu Klux Klan would do to intimidate Black people. This production is a history lesson, and historical moments are shared and enacted while photos of the actual people and events are simultaneously projected. Blackmon Lowery’s very personal and real story is shared dramatically and vividly through demonstrations of the blatant, violent, cruel racism that Black people faced and had to strive to prevail against. You are shown the strong resolve of Blacks during the Civil Rights Movement who fought for and, when necessary, were willing to die for the right to vote. The production takes the audience through what happened in this country, up to the passing of the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965. Blackmon Lowery and Sheedy want young people to know that they have a voice.

The production is filled with inspiring songs such as “Before I Be a Slave, I Be Buried in My Grave,” “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Sing Out/March On”—a song written by Joshuah Campbell, the musical director.

This production actually gave me chills! I had the chance to speak with Blackmon Lowery, Sheedy, production director Fracaswell Hyman, musical director Joshuah Campbell, and producer Miranda Barry about this production and the purpose of it.

Lowery shared how glad she was to have her story told and hoped it would be used as a means of inspiring young students to get involved in voting. She remarked that she wanted students to realize that they have power. Addressing plans for the show to be performed for students, fans or the general public in churches and other venues, she expressed excitement about having this history lesson brought to life on stage.

Sheedy shed light on how this production came about: her mother, Charlotte Sheedy, is Blackmon Lowery’s literary agent, and when the book was published her mother thought it would be good as a one-woman show. Sheedy explained, “The initial idea was for the story to be told onstage for younger school-aged audiences. I had worked with students at La Guardia High School for the Arts for the past six years. I had a student, Damaras Obi, who I felt had the dramatic range for the material. We worked at my apartment, at space the school gave to us and in rented studios for several months. I kept as close to the actual narrative in the book as possible and worked with Damaras on the dramatic arc, visual interpretations of the scenes and moment-to-moment telling of Lynda’s story…We were able to present our show to the student body. They loved it and we knew we had something that worked. We continued to develop the show for the next three years once Miranda Barry saw it and came on board as a producer. We worked at several theaters during that period.”

Continuing the show’s history, producer Barry shared, “I live in Hudson, a small city in upstate New York with a large African American population, and I thought that young people deserved to experience Lynda’s story. Initially, I thought it was a play for young people, and young audiences do love the show because they are amazed by what people their age did to win the right to vote. But I quickly discovered that people of all ages are engaged and inspired by what an ordinary person can do. Because I was worried that a one-woman show would not fill the 550-seat auditorium in Hudson, I invited the High School choir to open the performance—and that’s when we realized the value of both music and community in this project. The auditorium filled to overflowing, and the public library hosted a ‘Civil Rights Show and Tell’ where community people brought memorabilia from their activism during the Civil Rights Movement and shared their stories. A friend who saw the show recommended it to The Bridge Street Theater in Catskill, where we did a week of performances in February 2017. This time we invited the choir from the Second Baptist Church of Catskill to perform—a group of faithful singers that ranged in range from 7 to 80. Again the show was a great success, and the Second Baptist choir helped us bring many African American community members and school groups from as far away as Poughkeepsie to the theater. In January of 2018, we won a residency at The Center at West Park. The residency coincided with the APAP conference of Performing Arts Presenters, so we were able to invite them to come see the show. The Inspirational Choir from Riverside Church performed with us on weekends and we welcomed groups from schools, both public and private. The response to the show was always powerful, but we realized that the music was a critical part of the experience, that should be woven into the entire show. So, once the show had been taken up by Columbia Artists Theatricals and we knew we would have more bookings, it was time to invest in adding 5 new singer/actors to the cast.”

What started out as a one-woman drama has now been changed to a musical production with six cast members. Joining Obi are LaRon Grant, Claxton Rabb III, Chelsea Margaux Smith, Chante Odum and Candace Haynes. “I read the book several times and characters other than Lynda began to emerge from the text: her father, grandmother, siblings and fellow young marchers. I realized surrounding Lynda with brief snippets of the people most important in her young life would be an impactful way of telling the story with emotion and humor,” said production director Hyman. He recalled that before he got involved with the production, Obi had been doing the role for four years, and credits her preparation to the smooth transition that occurred when five other people were cast—especially since this six-member cast only had 12 days to get to know their lines before performing the production in front of an audience. “They are talented, hardworking and they’re committed to the importance of what we were doing right off the bat. That is why they have perfect, professional timing and delivery,”

Hyman remarked.

The cast members are young African Americans, discussing this, Hyman stated, “I cast young African American actors, because I wanted them to represent the young people of the Selma, Alabama ‘Kid’s Movement’. I want our audiences to see that young people have the power to change the world. Our message is two-fold: One —people suffered and died for the right to vote and it is an important privilege that must not be wasted. Two – young people have the power to change the world with non-violent protest, or as Dr. King said, ‘steady, loving, confrontation.’”

When you hear the six-cast member harmonize a cappella you will be astonished. “Our musical director, Joshuah Campbell, is a genius with an extraordinary gift. He was able to make six actors who met for the first time 12 days ago, sound as though they had been harmonizing together for 10 years,” Hyman added.

Campbell, who is a singer/songwriter/composer/actor, humbly stated, “I think a cappella singing has a natural, maybe even primal, sort of beauty to it. Further, I think music sung in this style from the Black American oral/gospel tradition is not a site of lack but of creative richness. Bodies are indeed instruments. I didn’t have to do anything for this to be; it just is. It helps that the cast was incredibly insightful and in tune (musically, meta-musically) with themselves and each other.”

Producer Barry commented, “I think this story needed to be told because most people know about leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, but this is the story of the foot soldiers of the movement —and many don’t know that it was children who put their lives on the line to win the right to vote. Also, the music of the Movement, from Churches and deep roots in African American history, is beautiful and inspiring—and rarely heard in the theater. Anyone can make history. No one is too young or too poor or too powerless to speak out and exercise their powerful right to vote.”

Discussing the future of the production, Barry shared, “We will perform at New Jersey Performing Arts Center Jan. 17th and 18th. We are in discussion about performing at Riverside Church Jan. 19th and 20th and in Little Rock in February. We will be at the Ware Center in Millersville, PA in March. Our agent at Columbia Artists is working on bookings for us across the country in 2019-2020. For now, we are a traveling show and available for bookings at Performing Arts Centers as well as schools, churches and community settings.

This musical is important in this country right now. “If we are to have a government that represents the American people, then everyone must vote. Democracy cannot survive if the people do not participate,” Barry remarked.”

Public performances at New York’s Riverside Church (Theatre entrance at 91 Claremont Ave. near 120th Street.) are Saturday, Jan. 19 at 2p.m. and 7p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 20 at 2p.m. & 6p.m. Tickets will go on sale starting Dec.16; priced at $30, and $20 for students and seniors, and can be purchased at https://turning15atriverside.eventbrite.com or by calling 212-870-6792.