About this Page: The Annual New York Music Festival, NYMF, has turned into a teenager. As in the past, Curtainup will be grazing at the festival. So keep checking back for our reviews on what's hot, and what's not. All but one of the shows we're covering will be staged at either the Peter Sharp or the Acorn Theater, both conveniently next door to each other. The conveniently located venues is a nice first; a producer not wanting to risk having a show reviewed less welcome loss of transparency. For details on everything on offer, check out the Festival's website http://www.nymf.org/
Freedom Riders is a musical drama about the past that speaks eloquently to the present and ought to have a future.
With book by Richard Allen and songs by Allen and Taran Gray, Freedom Riders chronicles the civil rights initiative that successfully challenged segregation on buses in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
In a 1960 case, Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled access to interstate commercial transportation and related services to be a right of travelers, regardless of race or ethnicity. Bus lines in the South, however, weren't desegregating their services and state governments weren't enforcing the law.
In spring 1961, The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized busloads of activists, African-American and Caucasian together, to bring the issue of desegregation of public transportation to a head. The vehicles carrying the so-called freedom riders plunged down highways from Montgomery, Ala., heading for New Orleans, La., defying the local authorities to stop them. The activists encountered resistance of varying degrees, from vulgar epithets to mob violence.
Freedom Riders portrays not only the harassment that riders faced but also the conflicts and complicated dynamics among the movers and shakers of CORE, SNCC, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Guy Lockard).
Allen's script delineates effectively the factions among the activists — the old guard (which is CORE), the current power base of the civil rights movement (King's SCLC), and the young Turks (SNCC). The action shifts back and forth between the rider's odyssey down south (where the activists are facing violence from both citizens and law enforcement personnel in Birmingham, Ala.) and the Washington, D.C. office of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Barry Anderson).
Fearing the kind f national controversy triggered by school desegregation in Little Rock, Ark. late in the Eisenhowever administration, Attorney General Kennedy wants to keep the federal government out of the Alabama conflict. He professes to be on the side of the freedom riders, but is concerned about the trouble federal intervention could heap on his brother's presidential administration.
The two parts of the story — deep South and District of Columbia — come together when Kennedy sends his Justice Department colleague John L. Seigenthaler (Ciaran McCarthy) to Alabama to negotiate with Governor John Malcolm Patterson for state protection of the activists. In Alabama, Seigenthaler becomes personally acquainted with the activists and convinced of the urgency of their mission. In the end, he's integral to the success of their initiative.
Produced by Richard Allen Enterprises, Freedom Riders features a top-flight cast of 14 musical theater professionals, many playing two or more roles. The company's youthfulness reflects appropriately the youth of many among the real-life activists (a host of whom were students) and of members of the John F. Kennedy administration.
In stand-out performances, Lockard and Anderson quickly overcome the disadvantage of playing historical figures whom audiences know well from videotape and other media. Both have the stage presence and gravitas for the roles and both depict their characters' substantial flaws without becoming unsympathetic.
As Seigenthaler, McCarthy delivers the evening's most nuanced performance as a committed journalist slightly out of place in government service, torn between his liberal conscience and allegiance to Kennedy (who's not only his boss but also his close friend).
Brynn Williams brings dignity and subtle force to the role of Diane Nash, the former Fisk University student who was one of the organizers of the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins before undertaking leadership of the Freedom Rides. Though she has the appeal of a traditional musical-theater ingenue, Williams is thoroughly believable when the script pits her against the strong wills of King, Seigenthaler, and Kennedy.
In writing Freedom Riders, Allen and Gray have their eyes on an ambitious prize. Even their subtitle, The Civil Rights Musical, is overweening (note the assertiveness of that definite article): this isn't a civil rights musical, this is the civil rights musical.
Allen and Gray's score is varied, with country-inflected sounds, Broadway-style ballads, and stirring anthems. Presumably the book is still a work in progress. If so, it's likely to benefit from further development. There are characters — such as Eugene "Bull" Connor (Don Rey), the Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety and villain of the musical — who are ciphers. There are moments, such as Kennedy's change of heart about federal intervention, in which the characters' precise motivations ought to be clearer. But what's on view at the New York Musical Festival is quite an accomplishment.
Freedom Riders offers a compelling account of a discrete chapter in the drama of the Civil Rights Movement. It illustrates how wretchedly our country has treated an enormous sector of the population in the past. And it reminds us (or at least it should) how savagely we're treating parts of our population, both citizens and noncitizens, now.