A compelling civil rights “herstory” lesson at Vintage

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The civil rights movement continues to inspire new stories and call forth those we think we know.

Take the recent Netflix biopic “Rustin” — starring Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin. He was the architect of 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King Jr. declared he had a dream. He was also gay and a close friend of MLK, and in telling his story, the movie expands on the history of those who contributed and shaped a movement.

Dee (Zeah Loren, left) and Abby (Shadiya Lyons) get into it in “Cadillac Crew.” (RDG Photography, provided by Vintage Theatre)

Closer to home, there’s Vintage Theatre’s production of “Cadillac Crew” (running through Nov. 26). Directed by ShaShauna Staton, Tori Sampson’s involving drama is an act of recovery and discovery, of connecting dots and tracing lineage. It also delivers some fine laughs thanks to the snappish interactions of its four central characters.

The play begins in a Virginia civil rights movement office in 1963; it unexpectedly but sagely ends with a podcast from today.

Rachel Helen Christopher (Kenya Mahogany Fashaw) is readying the office for the arrival of Rosa Parks. “JUDGE WOMEN AS PEOPLE NOT AS WIVES,” “REGISTER NOW, FREEDOM NOW!” demand two posters on the walls. Thanks to Rachel’s efforts, the icon who didn’t relinquish her seat to a white man on a bus in Alabama is due in town to deliver a speech that while still centered on rights will also address sexual violence against women.

If all you know of Parks is her catalyzing act of defiance, the fact that she was also an advocate for women who’d been raped may come as news. What won’t come as a surprise is the play’s notion that the local movement leaders who Rachel had been working with on the event — all male, many of them clergy — want Parks to stick to the script for racial equality.

Fashaw’s portrayal of this dynamo gets at the ego, the ambition but also the vision that that may require. An admirer of the speeches of King and others and intent on being remembered by history, Rachel is constantly rehearsing her own grand calls to action. Rachel gets things done but can also be insufferable. Just ask her fellow activists — Abby, Dee and Sarah — who also want to ensure that the rights of Black women move forward.

Abby (Shadiya Lyons) displays a haughtiness that comes when youthfulness meets privilege. When Rachel calls her “spoiled,” she corrects her with the first of the many tart lines the playwright has supplied her. “Not spoiled, accustomed,” she says. Dee is a proper middle-class wife and mother whose depths and internal conflicts are nicely suggested by Zeah Loren. Sarah (Katelyn Kendricks), the lone white woman in the office, has a kind of muted tension with Rachel that Abby and Dee note but can’t quite figure out.

Katelynn Kendrick portrays Sarah and later a journalist in “Cadillac Crew” at the Vintage Theatre. (RDG Photography, provided by Vintage Theatre)

While doing the legwork for Park’s appearance, Rachel shrugged off phone calls from Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women. When it becomes clear her efforts to include Parks’ anti-rape speech have been upended, Rachel changes course and rallies the other three to join in Height’s plans to have teams of Black and white women travel south to deliver talks to groups of Southern women on racial equality and voting rights.

The play’s title, “Cadillac Crew,” comes from the nickname given the squads of proper ladies participating in the council’s Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS) program. (Before the end of the program, 11 states would be included.) Height wrote in her memoir that the purpose of WIMS was to “establish lines of communication among women of goodwill across regional and racial lines … and to lend a ‘ministry of presence’ as witnesses to encourage compassion and reconciliation.”

In the play, compassion and reconciliation are directed at the four very different characters. The banter and tensions in the office provide the means to reflect on differences in conscience, class and political consciousness. The dialogue is often pointed; it’s also packed with history. The playwright nods to the violence encountered by the genteel WIMS crusaders but also to the deaths of civil rights workers John Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Before the women hit the road, news comes that four Cadillac Crew participants — one of them a friend of Abby’s — had been murdered.

If the play’s most amusing writing takes place in the office’s pointed banter, its most revealing takes place once this Cadillac Crew hits the road. Initially, Dee bows out at the behest of her husband. She later joins Abby, Rachel and Sarah on the road to Mississippi.

In the play’s most eloquently staged scenes, having headed South, the four of them begin keeping journals of their journey. Rachel and Sarah’s entries are mindful of the notion they are living history. (To whom it may concern,” begins Rachel. “We’re still alive after our troubles in Georgia.”) Abby and Dee’s observations are more quotidian. (“The car smelled like a dumpster … after Sarah burped and Abby pooted,” Dee records.)



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