1960 enlivens history

BY Roy C Dicks The News & Observer April 14, 2009

Depicting historical events on stage has inevitable pitfalls. Focusing on the factual record can create a glorified classroom lecture; manipulating the facts for heightened drama can perpetuate untruths. Burning Coal Theatre Company’s “1960” successfully avoids most of the hazards of both categories in its imaginative and moving examination of school desegregation in Raleigh.

Although the piece had been in progress for several years, the impetus for completion was the company’s move to the former Murphey School, the site of Raleigh’s first school integration. Playwright Ian Finley has fashioned a collage of sights, sounds and scenes that illustrate and comment on the Capital City’s struggle toward desegregation.

While concentrating on the years between the 1954 Supreme Court decision mandating integration and the 1960 assignment of second-grader Bill Campbell to formerly all-white Murphey, the piece also jumps back to the founding of Raleigh and forward to present-day classrooms.

A dedicated cast of 15, itself an exemplary integration of races, ages and talents, labors mightily, playing multiple roles and performing complicated staging. Two tower above the rest. Emelia Cowans moves effortlessly from housekeeper to mother to schoolteacher, investing each with vivid character and emotional depth. David Coulter draws in the viewer despite his characters’ nastiness, whether pontificating as Jesse Helms or maneuvering as school official Jesse O. Sanderson. The riveting end of act one between Cowans and Coulter, as mother battles administrator, is the production’s highlight.

Another strong portrait comes from Joan J, whose teacher-narrator casts ironic, bitter commentary on the situation, leavened by sassy quips and telling zingers. Also impressive are Jade Arnold’s gripping slave testimony, Jackson Bloom’s frightening teenager bigotry and Ann Cole’s smiling society-matron racism. The other actors all have their fine moments and work tirelessly together to admirable effect.

The whirl of names, places and events can be a little overwhelming, especially for those less familiar with local politicians and officials. Director Jerome Davis keeps the staging brisk, cleverly choreographed but sometimes too boisterous for maximum clarity of dialogue.

Burning Coal’s thoughtful presentation is recommended viewing for its reminder of how far we’ve come in race relations and how vigilant we still must be.