Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Song for Coretta

Ensemble’s A SONG FOR CORETTA points spotlight on the other civil rights King

The recent dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC, draws further attention to the person credited with being the father of the African American civil rights movement. Often, the effect of his wife, Coretta, seems to be ignored.

Coretta Scott King was a leader, author, and the founder and former president of the King Center. She was a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the Gandhi Peace Prize. Many also know that Mrs. King was a trained singer who was preparing for a career as a vocalist when she met a young preacher, Martin Luther King in the 1950s. Together they helped change history.

Pearl Cleage, in her play A SONG FOR CORETTA, now in production at Ensemble Theatre, explores the impact Mrs. King had on the lives of black women, and the connections they can build with one another through honoring her memory and legacy.

It’s Atlanta, Georgia, on a rainy afternoon in 2006 in front of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the body of Coretta Scot King is lying in state. She has died at age 78 after battling ovarian cancer and the effects of a stroke.

A bench center stage is emblazoned with a sign stating, “A seat for those who walked in Montgomery in 1955.” The march that, along with the bus strike that brought Rosa Parks to fame, and the restaurant sit-ins, resulted in breaking the back of segregation in the U.S.

The play centers on five women who are in line to pay their respects to the woman who many think of as a saint of the black community.

Fifty-seven year old Helen, a pious, up-tight, and proud Negro woman, met Mrs. King several times when, as a child, her parents took her to civil rights activities. She rode on the Montgomery bus the day the transit company gave in and let Blacks sit wherever they wanted in the vehicles.

Helen knows her civil rights history and is concerned with the decline of young peoples' values and their lack of interest in the history of the struggle for equal rights. Her fears are confirmed when she meets Gwendolyn, a 17 year old, who has just left an abortion clinic where she had gone to void herself of her second pregnancy. Lil Bit, Gwendolyn’s nick name, knows the words to rap music, but is unaware of any civil rights songs or the purpose or impact of the movement.

Zora is a 22-year-old journalism student who hopes her interviews with people waiting in line will be aired on National Public Radio.

Mona Lisa, a 40-year-old artist who survived the destruction and human horror of Hurricane Katrina, lost almost everything, and lives in her car.

Gwen is a traumatized Iraq war veteran, who is questioning the purpose of the war and the folly of service to her country.

Their serendipitous meeting brings them together and helps each to gain some understanding of how their lives are intertwined and have been influenced by Coretta Scott King.

Taylor’s script is purposeful and filled with the educational material that makes it a good choice for Black History month. It consists mainly of dialogue, with little action. There is some humor mixed in with history lessons and drama.

Ensemble’s production, under the direction of Margaret Ford Taylor is quite acceptable, but sometimes lacks the proper pacing and character development to bring out the impact of the script. In general, the actors stay mainly on the surface, feigning emotion and meaning, though there were moments of depth of motivation. Generally, however, they present characterizations rather than becoming the people they portray. It’s sometimes hard to feel the pain each of these women feels because our emotions aren’t stimulated.

We needed more of the emotional involvement displayed by Sonia Bishop (Gwen), when she exposes us to the horrors she experienced in the middle east.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: A SONG FOR CORETTA sets its focus on CORETTA SCOTT KING. It’s worth seeing Ensemble’s production to gain the seldom exposed tale of this important American history icon.