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Historic Student Strike Inspires New Civil Rights Drama


Years before Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream Speech" or Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, a group of African American students in Virginia went on strike to improve conditions in their high school. Their action, which helped pave the way for the integration of America's public schools, is regarded by many historians today as the beginning of the civil rights movement. Now it has inspired a theater work titled Open the Door, Virginia, which had its world premiere in Virginia on January 13 at George Mason University's Theater of the First Amendment.

Award-winning choreographer Dianne McIntyre directs the production, which uses dance, song and drama to tell the story of Davis versus Prince Edward County -- one of the five civil rights cases that collectively became known as Brown versus Board of Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in those cases - ruling that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional.

"All of the other cases were started by adults or committees in the community, or lawyers who inspired them," says Ms McIntyre. "But this one was very grassroots, and grassroots from the youth. I was inspired by the courage those young people had. They were dissatisfied with the situation in their school, so they took it upon themselves to plan some kind of action that could get them a better school."

Conditions were overcrowded in 1951 for the African American students at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. To accommodate the growing student population, some classes were held in an immobile school bus or in temporary buildings with roofs that leaked when it rained. Unlike the school attended by white students in the county, there was no cafeteria, no gymnasium and no restrooms for the teachers.

16-year-old Barbara Rose Johns and some of her fellow students decided it was time to do something about conditions at R.R. Moton. They organized a secret assembly for students only, and called for a strike. That historic moment is interpreted in Open the Door, Virginia by a dancer representing Ms. Johns and with other members of the cast reciting what her fellow students remember of that day.

Almost all of the text in Open the Door, Virginia is taken directly from interviews conducted by the director with former students and with other people involved in the strike and lawsuit that followed. Although Barbara Rose Johns led the students in April, 1951, her voice is never heard in the play. That is because Ms. Johns died in 1991, and Dianne McIntyre never had the opportunity to meet her.

After the interviews were transcribed, Ms. McIntyre sorted through them looking for links among different passages. She then pieced them together to create a loose narrative. Fine-tuning came during rehearsals, when the actors read the script out loud. "I can hear the musicality in what they read," says Ms. McIntyre, "and I put it together by taking a little excerpt from this person's talk, a little from this one. Then we have a little flow, and that flow becomes a type of music. And as soon as we have that section, we choreograph it."

Sometimes the result is similar to staging a traditional play. Other times it is closer to pure dance. Similarly, some of the words in Open the Door, Virginia are spoken, and some are sung to music composed and arranged by blues musician Olu Dara. The production is shaped by Dianne McIntyre's 30 years of experience as a choreographer, along with her desire to present the story as "an experience of art."

"It helps people take it in in a different way," says the director, "because your senses are absorbing the story in a more musical way and a visual kinesthetic way, rather than hearing it as political statements."

A student strike today may not seem like a dangerous undertaking, but in Virginia in 1951, it was. The threat of violence against African-Americans who spoke out for racial equality was very real at the time. Dianne McIntyre says she hopes audiences who see Open the Door, Virginia will be as inspired as she was by what the students of R.R. Moton High School did more than half a century ago. And she hopes that inspiration leads them to "step up, say something, [and] do something."