SITTING DOWN FOR A PIECE OF PIE: Coterie Theatre presents reflection on essential Civil Rights event

By Paul Horsley

Often when peering at photographs of historically momentous events, after our eyes have stared at the central subject for a while, we begin to gaze at what’s going on at the periphery. Provocative questions can arise from examining the faces of those on the sidelines: What was behind those expressions of shock, joy, anger? What happened to them afterward, and where are they now?

When Ed Simpson was commissioned to write a play commemorating the 2008 bicentennial of the city of Greensboro, N.C., he was drawn to a central event in the city’s history of which he had personal memories: the student sit-ins of 1960, in which four African-American college freshmen who were tired of standing in an isolated corner to eat pie at Woolworth’s decided to make a statement and sit down at the whites-only lunch counter

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Documentary photos of the event show not only the determined youngsters, staring calmly straight ahead, but also the white waitresses behind the counter (pointedly refusing to serve them): Just as notable are older African Americans watching the situation with interest. As the movement grew from a handful into hundreds, photos reveal jeering faces of white bystanders as well as residents of all races whose expressions suggest at least tacit sympathy.

Periphery, or We Shall Not Be Moved as Ed’s play has been renamed for performances at the Coterie Theatre this September, walks a fine line between historical chronicle and “art” to remind us of the several important events that led up to the Civil Rights advances of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others during the 1960s: most notably Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), the Rosa Parks incident (1955), the Little Rock Nine (1957), and what came to be called the Greensboro Four.

Granville O'Neal_Courtesy of The Coterie - Copy

Documentary photos of the event show not only the determined youngsters, staring calmly straight ahead, but also the white waitresses behind the counter (pointedly refusing to serve them): Just as notable are older African Americans watching the situation with interest. As the movement grew from a handful into hundreds, photos reveal jeering faces of white bystanders as well as residents of all races whose expressions suggest at least tacit sympathy.

Periphery, or We Shall Not Be Moved as Ed’s play has been renamed for performances at the Coterie Theatre this September, walks a fine line between historical chronicle and “art” to remind us of the several important events that led up to the Civil Rights advances of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others during the 1960s: most notably Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), the Rosa Parks incident (1955), the Little Rock Nine (1957), and what came to be called the Greensboro Four.

For these four students, the sit-in was partly an act of sheer exasperation. “They were kids,” said Simpson recently of the freshmen from North Carolina A&T College who almost inadvertently started the movement.

“They were finally pressed to the point where they said, I’m not going to put up with this anymore.” One young man was just tired and hungry after a long day, and wanted to sit down for a bite to eat. “They wouldn’t serve him pie … and he said, I’m tired of this. And he went back to his dorm and soon after that they began the sit-in.”

Ed has drawn characters not just from the center of the action but from those at the edges of the “action.” In one prominent photograph he had noticed a mid-30s African-American busboy, watching the four youngsters with cautious interest. “And I starting thinking, I wonder what that guy thinks about this? The guy on the edge of the picture. … He had to make a decision, too. And so I wrote him into the play.”

Later he would learn, as with others in these photos, that the man from the “periphery” of that picture was still alive, and would eventually come forward to identify himself. “I was writing for an audience for whom this was their home town,” Ed said. “So I didn’t feel like I could bend the truth too much.”

Roan Ricker_Courtesy The Coterie - CopyEd’s use of poetic license in combining characters was always informed by careful study of newspaper reports, eyewitness testimonies and later historical accounts. “I was able to fictionalize and bend it a little toward the message that the young people were putting out there. But I didn’t bend any of the real facts of who they were, or the timeline of the events.”

Ed also noticed onlookers in the background, including white men and women of all ages on whose faces can be read a wide range of reactions. “They’re saying, What do I make of this?” Ed said. “Or, This is wrong! Or whatever they’re thinking. All of them had to make a choice, those on the periphery.” Yet Greensboro at the time was “a progressive enough city that this was able to happen there without the bloodshed or violence that happened elsewhere,” Ed said.

Coterie Producing Artistic Director Jeff Church has made We Shall Not Be Moved into an interactive experience that challenges us to think on how we would have acted. “What I liked about this play is that it doesn’t do a biographical version of the Greensboro Four,” Jeff said. “It talks about the world that was that lunch counter: and of parents who had to decide whether to let their kids take part in this.”

Because he knew of the Coterie’s history of successful interactive experiences, Ed gave Jeff wide berth in “opening up” the play to allow the actors to turn to the audience and inspire conversation: a tricky thing to pull off night after night but nevertheless a lively forum of discovery that makes each performance unique.

Though his main goal was to create a good piece of theater, Ed also wanted to make a work that informs and inspires. These students thought surely they were going to be arrested, assaulted, and perhaps worse. “They said at the time, We may end being killed for this.”

But armed with the energy of youth, and emboldened by acts of “civil disobedience” that had begun in the 1950s, they risked it all, and in doing so altered history. With little violence, lunch counters nationwide were subsequently desegregated. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t forget that these people stood up for something,” Ed said, “that they did something that was really revolutionary.”

We Shall Not Be Moved runs from September 19th (Opening Night is September 22nd) through October 22nd at Crown Center. Call 816-474-6552 or go to thecoterie.org.

Directed by Jeff Church, it features Darrington Clark, Alisa Lynn, Antonia Washington, Granville O’Neal, Khrystal Coppage, Roan Ricker, Deanna Mazdra, Evan Lovelace, Daniel Eugene Parman, Robert “Tre” Coppage III, Matthew Williamson and Tommy Waller.

Photos, from top: Antonia Washington, Darrington Clark, Granville O’Neal, Tre Coppage, Roan Ricker and Khrystal Coppage. All are courtesy of The Coterie Theatre. The last one is by Alexis Holifield, Perplex Photography.

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To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).