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Prime Stage Sheds Light on a Key Historical Moment in African-American History

 

    There’s an almost reverential tone pervading the current Prime Stage Theatre production at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

    The cast of mostly Black American actors respectfully retell the tale of Civil Rights activist, Rosa Parks, and her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The title character, after all, is considered a genuine heroine by many for her refusal to give up her seat to a White passenger on a bus, thereby setting off the mechanisms that would end segregation in Montgomery’s transportation system and elsewhere.

    The date was December 1, 1955, when, following a day working as a seamstress in a local department store, Parks was arrested for violating a local segregation ordinance. While others before her had experienced the same chain of events, Parks seemed the perfect candidate by local civil rights leaders to test the legality of civic and state discriminatory laws.

    As a protest to her treatment and the long-standing mistreatment of other African-Americans on the city’s bus lines, organizers responded by suggesting a bus boycott by Black riders, who constituted as much as 75 percent of the bus ridership. The one day boycott proved so successful it continued for another 381 days, severely impacting the bus line’s finances.

    In Prime Stage’s production of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the play reveals Parks’ role in organizing and sustaining the boycott, which organizers preferred to call a protest.

    The drama by playwright Sue Greenberg reveals many personal details in Rosa’s valiant determination to persevere. The audience sees the toll the boycott had on Park’s personal life, the barrage of hateful phone calls and death threats, the loss of her and her husband’s jobs, the bombing outside her home and church as well as that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home, who the playwright introduces as a 25-year-old, newly arrived minister of the Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery and president of the boycott organization titled the Montgomery Improvement Association.

The Cast of Rosa Parks Chelsea Davis as Rosa is seated in center. Credit: Lura Slovesko

    In the title role, Chelsea Davis not only bears a remarkable resemblance to Parks, arrested at the age of 42, but also captures the essence of the role. She’s calm and levelheaded in her defiance of her unjust treatment and fights off her personal demons with a almost saintly serenity as the White community begins reacting trenchantly to the boycott. Davis shows Parks as intelligent and gentle and a firm advocate of the doctrine of non-violence, but one with grit and moxie.

    Support of her cause comes from Edgar Nixon (Nick Page), president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and leader of the Pullman Porters Union. Page is both charming and savvy as he helps navigate the turbulent waters associated by the boycott. At first, a somewhat reluctant firebrand, Jake Moon as Dr. King, Jr. shows off the latter’s oratory skills by delivering an impressively passionate speech at the Dexter Baptist Church to the Black community who’ve assembled in response to the city’s humiliating segregation ordinances.

Jake Moon as Rev King giving a speech at the Dexter Baptist Church Credit: Laura Slovesko

    As Rosa’s own pastor, Ken Lutz is asked to play several other roles as well, including the town’s mayor, bus driver and more and makes amazingly facile transformations from one to the other.

    Another talented actress asked to step into multiple guises, Cynthia Dallas can transform from a youthful council woman to a spunky elderly matron who threatens to brandish her cane as a weapon when needed in the blink of an eye and the donning of a knit shawl. In other multiple roles, Ameriah Fisher adds flourishes of youthful enthusiasm to the drama.

    Last but definitely not least, Rebecca L. Godlove seems to relish her role as Parks’ friend and political ally, bringing flashes of humor to her role as a stalwart civil rights advocate, who jeopardizes her standing in the White community by her support of the boycott.

    Interspersed with the drama are several familiar rousing and poignantly appropriate songs in which the audience can clap and sing along as they see fit.

    Set designer, Alex Kepler, goes minimalist aptly filling the stage with a series of chairs arranged to resemble those on a bus and adds bits of household furniture in another area of the stage to suggest the Parks’ home. Be sure to take note of the 1950s-style bus seat on the set on loan from the Pennsylvania Trolley Music in Washington, Pa., the production’s promotional partner.

    Keeping the cast in perfect harmony and at a comfortable tempo or pace is director, Linda Haston, who wields a conductor’s baton (if I’m allow that simile) that gives the production a sometimes moody, sometimes jubilant, sometimes hopeful but always reverential tone.

    Following on the heels of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and preceding February as Black History month, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is both timely, informative and very entertaining. The play runs about 75 minutes at the New Hazlett Theatre, Six Allegheny Square East, on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Through January 28. For tickets, log on to prime stage.com.

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