America was always destined to be so much more, and so much better, than “separate but equal.” Yes, it’s disheartening and infuriating and galvanizing and demoralizing that more than 120 years after Plessy v. Ferguson, and more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we have to endure and be witness to a feckless mob of amoral revanchists hell-bent on hurtling America back to Jim Crow, cross-burning and Blacks and Jew avoiding the white-sheet sale at Macy’s. But we’re not going back to that, even with new appointees to the Supreme Court and that Orange Manbaby in the White House. Because real Americans won’t allow it.
And one of the ways we’ll stop a regressive slide into rampaging racism and discrimination is by telling the stories of how we will never stop putting the cause of social justice at the center of the American story — even if it’s through the law more often than through any person’s heart. And some of those stories — courtesy of the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum — have yielded the raw material for Separate and Equal, a new play written and directed by Seth Panitch that opens Sun. Sept. 9 for a run through Sun., Sept. 30, at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). The play is produced by the University of Alabama in partnership with the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and the Birmingham Metro NAACP.
The plot of Separate and Equal is straightforward but intriguing:
“In the pressure-cooker of 1950s Jim Crow Alabama, two groups of teens — one black, one white — play a forbidden game of basketball. Separate and Equal follows six young men on the very cusp of adulthood as they struggle to break free from a repetitious cycle still evident today.”
The play is described as a hybrid of theater, modern dance and sport, performed to an original jazz soundtrack. For tickets, click here.
And now 5 questions that the cast of Separate and Equal have never been asked:
The Clyde Fitch Report: What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Adrian Baidoo: How does the proximity of the audience effect your performance?
Steven Bono, Jr.: “Whom did you base that off of?!” After putting up work that requires more transformation, it is a pleasant second or third question after meeting someone new. What I read into it is, “Oh, you personally are nothing like that dude” and that I must have been just doing a really good impression of someone. Usually, it is a collection of many things from many different folks. Starting with the character of course, then a mannerism here, a twang there, add a dash of a certain someone’s stance — and you start to build your character. Ingredients are only included into the mix if it does something to make my job richer, or easier to make want I want tougher to obtain.
Edwin Brown III: My favorite will always be “What’s it like being an actor?” When I hear this question, it’s always sincere. My response is it’s like being a one-man band.
Dylan Guy Davis: No answer!
James Holloway: Not too sure. I appreciate any question, or interest in my work. Although, I will say that I like when doing interviews someone may ask, “How long did it take for you to learn your lines and everything for the show?” I may reply with “three weeks” or “a month,” and people are always amazed.
CFR: What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
AB: “Why do you rehearse for so long?”
SB: I don’t think any one idiotic question has rung louder than another but usually it’s the ones that just lack thought, care or specificity. “Was that hard?” or ”Are you always that mean?” Finding myself playing the antagonist more often than not, people are quick to forget their own personal experience with blind rage, revenge and malice. I guess I hope to jog their memories. I think they are so close to asking something beautiful and anxiety just got in the way. I like asking magicians how they did something, but only asking them about the exact part I couldn’t quite figure out.
EB: “Are you planning on doing this forever?” Well, Mr. Condescending, for as long as it brings me joy.
DGD: “How do you memorize all those lines?”
JH: None that I can think of. I guess I don’t attract, or I’m unattractive to, idiotic principles.
CFR: What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
AB: “What smells get you into character?” (Not a bad question, just odd.)
SB: “Is everything okay?!” This is a weird one. I absolutely appreciate the concern and find the question meaningful to me in other areas of my life, but not after seeing my work. If you had concern for me up there rather than focusing on the mirror I was aiming at you then I didn’t do my job. Also, that must have been a long show for you, huh?
EB: “How do you remember all those lines?” Don’t ask actors this. It makes us feel like we didn’t do our job.
DGD: “What kind of underwear does your character wear?”
JH: You really have me thinking on this one! I really haven’t come across anything that seems out of the norm to me.
CFR: As you rehearse and perform Separate and Equal, which is more challenging: getting the movement and sportsmanship down solid, or establishing your character and the character’s relationships to all the other characters?
AB: The movement! There is a lot of basketball. We spent the first entire week focused on it. It feels like the foundation of the story. We can’t add character relationships, friction, and all the other elements that make a play interesting without the groundwork. And the groundwork here just happens to be quite complex.
SB: They, of course, are intertwined. While I am no “dancer,” I can move and I played ball competitively for years. The moment you have a breakthrough with the character, one of the basketball drives makes more sense. The hardest thing to do as my character, Jeff Forrest, is to make him susceptible to the beautiful beings stunningly similar across the court from him without losing the lineage of hatred engrained into his worldview. Those actors playing the African-American boys make it almost too easy to find myself affected toward segregation. In another play, those three would make Jeff leave Birmingham and his Klansman father all behind to start the Alabama Globetrotters.
EB: The movement! All the relationships and my character traits, wants and needs are in the text. Thanks to Seth [Panitch, the Separate and Equal playwright], there is not much digging I have to do to live in Nathan. The tougher challenge for me is in the basketball games. Ownership of the choreography did not come easy. A lot of lifts. A lot of weight sharing. A lot of leaps and spins. [Choreographer] Lawrence Jackson and his super-talented dance students were so vital to this process.
DGD: Can I choose “all of the above”?
JH: I started preparing my body, mind and spirit two months before rehearsals started. I knew that this play was going to exhaust a lot of physical energy from me, so I took up martial arts classes in Jeet Kune Do with Chris Moran in Manhattan. It cut down on a lot of the physical challenges that may have come in the rehearsal process. In terms of character work, I don’t really see the challenges. The work is the work, and you just do the work. Work hard, and hopefully you’ll be rewarded with great work. A lot of subject matter in this play is in no way foreign to me. It’s dealing with racism, which I’ve experienced at different points in my life. So I’ve been using my personal experiences and others’ experiences to aid me along with this rehearsal process.
CFR: Since this play is based on personal recollections from the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, what responsibility do you feel for respecting and living up to the memories of real people in this play?
AB: A lot of responsibility. Usually when I do a play, I find you get to a point where research has played its part. At some point you accept this is a fictional world and you are going to have to start fueling the life behind it yourself. But not with this piece. Since it’s all based on real accounts, I find the more research I do, the more the weight of the play hits me. The cast has done a pretty good job of sharing interviews and information on Alabama and the South during this time period. And taking a cast trip to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum itself was invaluable!
SB: As actors, our job is first and foremost to the playwright, secondly to the director. Luckily, both of those fellas are the same guy, and even more to our favor that individual is masterful. Seth is a storytelling savant with a razor-sharp wit and a huge heart for history. He is a dramaturge through-and-through and we have been gifted the most grim and compelling source material. Our retrospective of the American 1950s may offer a key into healing our current social climate-change.
EB: The cast got to visit the Museum on an off-day. After seeing a Klan robe and burned cross there, the gravity of the show hit me. I feel a lot of responsibility not only to the people who inspired the writing of these characters but to Birmingham itself. The “Magic City” is a character in the show as well. Playing Nathan, I stand for Black workers at Sloss Furnace. Black men denied education. Black men who preferred segregation. It is a tough and necessary play. The historic elements are not sugar-coated. Two groups of friends bond over their love of sport. However, outside forces not only work to keep them separated, but as enemies.
DGD: I feel we owe it to these people, who suffered for years in that hostile environment, that their voices and stories are heard. Re-introducing these stories back into the public eye, I hope will hold up a mirror to modern America and show us how dangerously easy it was just to hate someone because of the color of their skin.
JH: I think you said it. There’s a definite responsibility. This is entertainment, but it’s not a game. People have died to be where we are today. It’s an honor. It’s a privilege. And I think that we all are doing our part to uphold the integrity of the people, fully, in Separate and Equal. Seth has put together something special.
CFR: Name three American cities where you think Separate and Equal should be produced tomorrow. Why?
AB: I think this play would be most suited for extremist cities. Whether they lean right or left. This play humanizes people in a way I certainly wasn’t expecting. I’m not saying you’ll leave with a major shift in your political beliefs, but you may leave with a deeper understanding of someone who is nothing like you. It forces you to listen.
SB: Separate and Equal should literally follow The Public Theater Mobile Unit tour of the upper Midwest — now, right behind their production of Sweat by Lynn Nottage. While no actor wants to summer in ‘Bama and winter in Minnesota, it is too dire a time not to think this way… Rather than preaching at them after curtain call, we allow a talkback with questions posed to them. It would be a four-week tour this fall that will travel through 18 cities across Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin. I know you said three, but this region is aching for some non-segregated solace.
EB: 1) Charlottesville, VA. It’s obvious. 2) Huntsville, AL. That’s where the burned cross from the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum was confiscated. 3) Washington, DC. Much of the divisive and racist rhetoric from the mouths of some of the characters in this play can be heard from people in power in our capital.
DGD: Atlanta, Birmingham and Jackson. I think performing Separate and Equal in the South is beneficial. A lot of young people have been told stories about this time, but actually seeing it and experiencing it is something completely different.
JH: Other than NYC, I think that this play would do well in Philadelphia and Chicago. Those are two major cities that have a deep connection to sports, and have a deep-rooted past in segregation and racism. My Aunt Juliet’s family is from Birmingham, so I know firsthand that people migrated from Birmingham into those major cities, looking for a better life. Third, I’d say that the play needs to be done in Birmingham at some point. It’s their story, their history, and I’m grateful for them sharing it with us.