'The Beloved Community' delves into legacy of Civil Rights Movement

November 02, 2003|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

There is a profusion of layers to the play "The Beloved Community," which opens for its world premiere Wednesday at Centre College.

On one level, the play deals with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. On another level, it questions whether we come together harmoniously or are separated by race. But at its core are other issues, says director Anthony R. Haigh.

"It is about the reconciliation and redemption of us, the people of America," says Haigh. "It's a simple story on one level, about a group of 1960s radicals at a liberal arts college (in contemporary time) for a symposium on the '60s. They confront their values, then and now.

"The students decide to do a play, and confront their values now and what they might have been then. The central issue of the play is race. The fundamental question of the play is 'Is America a melting pot or is America a collection of separate but equal racial entities?'"


Haigh says the college drama department often casts students in older roles, but "The Beloved Community" lends itself to having age-appropriate actors in the activists' roles.

"The three people we've got doing it are extraordinarily good," he says. "The bring the resonance of their knowledge of the past into the rehearsal hall.

"It's been a great pleasure for the students. ... The students are really responding to them."

The play includes students as well as three community members who play the '60s activists. Terri L. Carter plays Monique, Buck Rogers plays Richard and Jan Sheffield plays Ann. The characters spent the "freedom summer" together and consider it as one of the most important times of their lives.

Rogers calls "The Beloved Community" a "fascinating play," and the fact he is participating in a world premiere also is exciting. But his character is difficult, he notes.

"The biggest stretch for me is the role I'm playing," Rogers explains, adding his character has changed drastically in the 40 years since the freedom summer. "I was alive and somewhat politically active in the '60s, but there's been no transformation for me (personally) to a neo-conservative.

"It's also very difficult for me, even as an actor, to use words that are so foreign to the way I feel. I guess the only thing I have in common (with the character) is that he likes to play with words and I like to play with words."

Carter, who was an infant and toddler in the early 1960s, says the only reason she can identify with her character is that Monique comes from a big family, as she does. She remembers her older siblings being involved with the Black Power Movement and having afros and listening to Malcolm X.

Notes Rogers, "In the play, you're probably the most unchanged."

Adds Carter, "I'm the same person (in the play), only older and more bitter because nothing has changed (in society). ... I'm an angry black woman."

Sheffield, who was a little girl in the early 1960s, says working on "The Beloved Community" brought back memories of her fourth-grade teacher, who was a black instructor in an all-white school. The play has led her to consider how difficult it was for her teacher to be in that profession in the 1970s.

"She came into my life and was one of the coolest people I ever met," Sheffield notes. "I wish there was some way to get in touch with her.

"I've been thinking about the real people who lived through the Civil Rights Movement. (My character) has a typical Midwestern background, so I wonder, 'How did she get into what she's doing?'"

Rogers says the relationships are complex. The trio had lived in the same house in the '60s; Richard had a relationship with Monique, and also married Ann. They had a child, who died of a drug overdose.

As an actress, Carter says, she's enjoyed working with a playwright such as Farrell.

"And I feel honored to work with these students," she says. "I don't feel like I'm doing the play enough justice.

"The whole script is well written - he uses a lot of facts. I just want to do him justice."

Playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III, who has been working with Haigh and the students during the course of rehearsals, uses the metaphor of jazz in the play.

"The way jazz is integrated, harmonious ... Jazz is the coming together of different instruments and the separation of different instruments. The instruments live separately and together."

Haigh says the play also deals with the tensions of individualism and harmony, and the idea of "what do we want America to look like?," he adds.

"What do we do in an America where (people are) seen as an outsider because of the color of their skin and their ancestors have been here for 300 years?" Haigh asks.

The director says he became interested in doing a play focused on issues of race because of "useful discussion" that arose from the performances of "The Laramie Project" in Danville earlier this year.

"I decided then to look for a play dealing with issues of race," Haigh notes.

"But not everyone will agree with the conclusion of the play."

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