- Photo by Right Image Photography
- Mimi Cowans and Aaron Wright in Burning Coal's 1960
Burning Coal Theater
Through April 26
Literary theorists like to remind us that we always meet a story's characters in the middle of things—or, in the Latin, in medias res. Even if someone is being born or dying as we first encounter them, the culture and the world that character is entering or exiting have been in progress and evolving long before their appearance, and will continue to do so long after they are gone.
A necessary first question for a storyteller, then—no matter what the genre—involves where to place the frame around their tale. In the opening moments of the new play 1960, the central character known as The Teacher openly confronts the question when she asks, "Where do you start?" while pondering the beginnings of racial desegregation in the public schools of Raleigh. The question clearly bedevils playwright Ian Finley and his colleagues as this historical play unfolds on the Murphey School stage—itself the site of a pivotal event in the local history of integration. And the not-entirely satisfactory answer that the script presents us inevitably influences the other primary, frame-related questions: "What do you put in? What do you leave out? And where do you stop?"
At least five years in the making, 1960 wears the credentials of its far-ranging inquiries with justifiable pride. Original research, including probing interviews with principal historical characters like former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell, who was the first black student ever to attend a white school in Raleigh, is likely the play's strongest suit. Throughout the production, this testimony is juxtaposed alongside news articles, letters to the editor and texts of segregationist state statutes from yesteryear. In their midst: original transcripts of news editorials once broadcast over WRAL-TV by its then vice-president for news and public affairs, Jesse Helms.
But at least partially as a result, 1960 repeatedly seems at this point in its development in danger of drowning in context.
The point is well taken: In no way did racial equality in education begin in Raleigh in 1960, or in 1954, with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. But in its lengthy search for an appropriate historical place to start, 1960 burns through too much of its first act in dilatory scenes that ultimately reduce, by a significant amount, how much time we ever get to spend with the characters involved in the titular year. Moises Kaufman and his associates in Tectonic Theater Project famously used copious amounts of source material in works like The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde to firmly ground and draw us closer to those works' primary events and characters. But characters like Campbell and Joseph Holt Jr., and the central events in 1960, seem repeatedly in danger of being buried under sections devoted to John Chavis, Anna J. Haywood Cooper, Olaudah Equiano, Hardy Mills, present day high-school students and 1950s pop culture references that all feel too tangential to the topic.
It's telling—and chilling—when Campbell looks back on his childhood and observes: "I was sacrificed in order to change a troubled society. My father recognized that a sacrifice had to be made, somebody had to go first. It was an unbelievable commitment, to sacrifice his own child ... so society could be better."
But the dimensions and the realities of that sacrifice constitute a surface barely scratched—indeed, inappropriately so—in this play.
For five years, Bill Campbell walked the halls of Murphey School as its only black student. That gauntlet began when he was in the second grade. It took years of protests to put him there.
Before him, the family of Joseph Holt was pummeled for nearly four years with a series of threats ranging from the loss of jobs to their own deaths because they wanted to send their child to a school that was white at the time. These are the true dramas of 1960.
But the present script and production, preoccupied with the extensive historical record, ultimately appears to shy away from them. It speaks of these events, for a while, with journalistic reserve, but it never shows them to us. It is ironic that, while telling us too much about the past, 1960 still gives us far too little about its subject.