Friday, February 5, 2016

Walk On With Rosa Parks--With Murfin Verse

From the play Walk On--The Story of Rosa Parks.  Note--this is not Najwa Parkins, the gifted singer/actress who appeared in the production at the Raue Center.

It turned out that yesterday was Rosa Parks’s birthday, something I would have remembered if I had glanced at the Montgomery Bus Boycott calendar that hangs over the desk in my study, the one my old friend Carole Bilotta Clark sent me from the Alabama capital, or if I had not been a day late posting the lengthy piece on the assassination of Kentucky Gov. William Goebel.  Instead I was reminded from the stage of the Raue Center for the Arts, a beautifully restored gem of a small classic movie palace by the cast of a one-act musical called Walk On—The Story of Rosa Parks.
My wife Kathy Brady-Murfin spotted the production a few months ago in a Raue Center brochure and snapped up a couple of tickets.  We have been eagerly looking forward to the show ever since.
After an early dinner at Giorgio’s a couple of blocks away in downtown Crystal Lake we arrived at the theater about 10 minutes before the scheduled 7 pm show.  We were ushered to prime aisle seats in the fourth row.  Only a handful of the 600 seats on the main floor were occupied.  We assumed that the balcony was closed.  We were disappointed by the turn out, but people filtered in occupying scattered seats in the auditorium.  By the time the house lights dimmed there were probably over 100 in attendance.
Most, like us, were gray heads.  I spotted a handful of families with children or early teens.  And at the last moment four animated, hip looking young people who looked like they might be high school or college age theater geeks.  Maybe white bread, conservative McHenry County was not the kind of place where a show about a Civil Rights icon and genuine trouble maker was destined to find a wide audience.  But maybe it was just the kind of place that needed a show like this.
If the performers in the small cast were disappointed by the turnout they gave no indication of it.  They literally burst on the stage with energy and conviction.  This would be no dry documentary or dour drama but a living Hallelujah! shout for freedom and a hymn to a People’s struggles. 
We learned of Mrs. Park’s remarkable act of defiance from a handbill calling for a protest boycott of the city busses picked up from the street and shared by Rosa’s friend Jackie—Justine Appiah-Danquah—and local NAACP leader E.D. Nixon—Earnest Jordan.  Regarding Parks he says “they are in for it now!”  This is a woman they already know well and who is thus established as a veteran activist, not a random seamstress with sore feet.
Backed by an onstage trio of white musicians who double as a chorus to the action and playing characters in the show—keyboardist Sadie Faircloth, bass guitarist Raidford Faircloth, and Bob Lucas on electric bass who also wrote the music for the production—Jackie and Nixon burst out with a joyful, gospel infused song Today I Feel Like Walking which celebrated of feeling of liberation at finally being able to fight back against oppression.
I believe the audience was at first a bit stunned.  I don’t know what they were expecting, but it wasn’t this.  They weren’t yet ready to clap hands or shout amen.  Despite the strong singing there was scant applause after the opening number.  But that would change.
Rosa herself—Najhwa Parkins—was introduced in a flash back to her childhood in the tiny Alabama town of Pine Level.  She was already a serious child with a firm idea of her self-worth and identity with firm ambitions.  A chance encounter with a white girl, the daughter of plantation owner where the whole family picks cotton every year (Sadie Faircloth) left her injured, confused, and resentful.  Her beloved grandfather (Raidford Faircloth) who was born a slave but so light skinned that he could pass for white, wised the girl up to the ways of Mr. Charlie in song.
The story picked up in Montgomery where Rosa was sent to the Industrial School for Girls, the only available high school for Black young women.  She was put to work 10 hours a day in a sewing shop in exchange for two hours of instruction in the evening.  She met Miss Evans, a teacher at the school and reoccurring character again played by Sadie Faircloth who seems torn by sympathy for her charges and a loyalty, or at least resignation, to the system that oppressed them.  Fellow student Jackie tried to reassure Rosa and also to get her to loosen up her tightly wound temperament with a rollicking barrelhouse blues Welcome to the Party.  At this point even the audience was loosening up, clapping along, cheering, and rewarding the performance with an enthusiastic round of applause.  This enthusiasm and engagement built through the rest of the show.
The show skipped over Rosa’s marriage and reconnected with her when she practically had to break into the local chapter of the NAACP headed by Nixon where her off-stage husband was a member.  It was not made clear exactly how early this was—1943—which would have helped make more clear the length and depth of Parks’s commitment to the struggle.  It chronicled her work with the NAACP as the chapter’s long-time secretary, especially her work recording the abuses heaped on local Black citizens by police, local authorities, and racist gangs.  It also highlighted her long-time work in voter registration, where she once again encountered Miss Evans, now a registrar who refuses to give Parks passing scores on the infamous literacy test of the period.  

NAACP Chapter president E. D. Nixon and Rosa Parks.
Later, after Rosa is finally registered, Miss Evans quit the job in the Clerk’s office and approached Rosa tearfully apologizing,  The duet between the two, Forgiveness hinted at the possibility of racial reconciliation without pretending it would be easy or sugarcoating the obstacles.
The play accompanied her to the famed Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, radical interracial training camp for labor and civil rights activists from across the South.  That experience broadened Park’s horizons and perhaps most importantly gave her the first experience she ever had of living equally with whites and collaborating with them.

Rosa Parks being finger printed and booked in Montgomery, Alabama.

The story of Park’s final act of defiance was related to Nixon and Jackie after her release from jail.  The two help her act it out on the Spartan stage.  Rosa made it clear that although this exact day had not been planned, something like it was long in the works and inevitable.  She dispelled the fairy tale that she was just a poor tired seamstress whose feet hurt.  I Will Sit Down, her defiant anthem had the audience finally in real cheers.
The cast summarized the 381 day long Montgomery Bus Boycott and its eventual victory in a few sentences without mentioning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once.  I don’t believe that this was a slight on his memory.  Rather the company chose in emphasize the long-haul commitment of Parks, Nixon, the NAACP and the sacrifices of the ordinary Black citizens of Montgomery.  Too often the whole Civil Rights movement is pictured as the personal achievement of safe and saintly hero, which robs it of its fundamental radicalism as a people’s movement.
The play wound up with all hands joining in a rousing reprise of Today I Feel Like Walking this time with the crowd on its feet.  They wrapped the whole whirlwind experience up in just under an hour.
The play was a production of the unique Mad River Theater Works, a touring ensemble based in the rural Midwest which has mounted 25 original productions over the last 26 years.  Founded by Bob Lucas, who has written most of the music and performed in the shows, productions have included musicals about folk legend John Henry, a town that is a station on the Underground Railway, the first American Black aviator, and Baseball star Jackie Robinson among many others.
The shows are intended for multi-age audiences and often play at schools and colleges.  Unlike some other historical presentations I have seen for school, they do not pull their punches or water down their content.  Kids are addressed frankly as intelligent people capable of facing harsh truths and developing ethical responses.  We were happy to hear that the troupe is staying in Crystal Lake today and will repeat the show in front of more than 500 local students.
By the way, that troupe is made up of seasoned and thorough professional performers with wide experience in regional theater and especially on the musical stage. 
I am impressed that Bob Lucas and playwright Jeff Hooper as white men were unafraid to tackle Black themes without condensation or the introduction of sympathetic White characters who can make it all better.
I took such a leap myself back in 2005.  While watching the TV news I was struck by the scene of Rosa Parks laid out in state under the Dome of the Capital.  Long lines waited hours to pass the coffin.  By happenstance it was on Halloween night.  I was struck with poetic inspiration.  In an experience much like automatic writing in which I seemed to be channeling another spirit, I dashed off the longest poem I have ever written or ever expect to write.  More astonishing, I have hardly revised a word since. 
I dared to write in Rosa Parks’s own voice as if speaking from the spirit realm.  I had heard her voice in recorded interviews and tried to catch the quality.  More audaciously, I read it in her soft accents when I performed it in public.  No one threw tomatoes and I later got some notes of approval from black poets. 
The poem struck many of the notes of last night’s play, but to Park’s story and musings up through her years in Detroit, including her anguish over the violence and seeming hopelessness of Black urban youth.
Here is that poem.

Rosa Parks lying in State in the Rotunda of the Capitol on October 31, 2005--by chance Halloween.

Rosa Parks on Halloween 2005 

I didn’t hold truck with Halloween.
I was a good Christian woman.
Ask anyone who ever knew me,
            they will tell you so.

Back in Detroit young fools,
            with pints and pistols
            in their back pockets
            burned the neighborhood
            each Halloween.
Hell Night they called it
            and it was.
Heathen business, I say.

I passed on a few days ago.
Time had whittled me away.
Small as I was to begin with,
            I had no weight left
            to tie me to the earth.

Now I lay in a box on cold marble.
The empty dome of the Capital
            pretends to be heaven above.
A river of faces turns around me,
            gawking, weeping, murmuring.
I see them all.

Maybe those old Druids,
            pagan though they were,
            were right about the air
            between the living and the dead
            being thin this day.

More likely that Sweet Chariot
            has parked somewhere
            and let me linger a while
            just so I could see this
            before swinging low
            to carry me home.

It makes me proud alright.
I was always proud.
Humility before the Lord
            may be a virtue,
            but humility before the master
            was the lash that kept
            Black folks down.
We grew pride as a back bone.

All of this is nice enough.
But let me tell you,
            since I’ve been gone,
            I’ve seen some foolishness
            and heard plenty, too.

They talk all kinds of foolishness
            about that day in Montgomery.
All that falderal about my feet being tired.
It wasn’t my soles that ached.
It was my soul.

It wasn’t any sudden accident either.
No sir, I prayed at the AME church.
I went to the Highland School
            for rabble rousers and trouble makers.
I met with the brothers at the NAACP
            who were a little afraid
            of an uppity woman.

Another thing.
That day was not my whole life.
There were 42 years before
            and fifty more after.
There was plenty of loving and grieving,
            sweat and laughter,
            and always speaking my mind
            very plainly, thank you.

Sure, there were parades.
There were medals and speeches, too.
But there were also long lonely days.

Once, up in Detroit,
            I was beat half to death
            in my own home
            by a wild eyed thug.
He didn’t care if I was
            the Mother of Civil Rights.
He never heard of Dr. King
            or the bus boycott.
All he wanted was my Government money.
            so he could go out
            and hop himself up some more.

That a young Black man
            could do that to an old woman,
            any old woman,
            near broke my heart.
That I could step out my door           
            and see copies of him
            lolling on every street corner
            made me mad.

We may have changed the world,
            like they kept saying.
We didn’t change it enough.
We didn’t keep the hope from
            being sucked out of the city.

This business in the Capital    
            is alright, I suppose.
And it was nice enough to be brought
            back to Montgomery, too,
            laid out in the chapel
            of my home church.
But clearly some folks have
            gone out of their minds.

Why, in Houston the other day,
            before a World Series game,
            they had the crowd stand silent
            in my memory.
It was a sea of white faces
            who paid a seamstress’s
            wages for a month for a seat.
It seems the only Black faces
            were on the field
            or roaming the aisles
            selling hot dogs.

And, Lord, the two-faced politicians
            that came out of the woodwork!
The governor of Alabama
            cried crocodile tears
            as if he would not be
            happy to have
            a White Citizen’s Council
            membership card in his wallet
            if it would get him some votes.

Somebody roused George W. from his stupor,
            told him in short easy words
            who I was,
            and shoved him out
            in front of the microphones
            to eulogize me.
He looked uncomfortable and confused.
I understand he had other things
            on his mind.

What these politicians had in mind
            was patting black folks on the head.
“See,” they say, “Mrs. Parks and Dr. King
            took care of everything.
They asked for freedom and we gave it to them
            a long, long time ago.
What more can you ask?
Now stand over there out of the way
            so we can get down to the business   
            of going after real money.”

It plain tires me out.

Little children, Black and white,
            who study me in school,
            do not think the job is over.
Your own bus seat must be won every day.
And while you are at it,
            have the driver change the route.

—Patrick Mufin

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