ROCHESTER — In honor of February as Black History Month, the theater department at Rochester College will present a two-play special celebrating the fight for equality.
The one-act plays — “Florence,” by Alice Childress, and “Walk, Don’t Ride,” by Peter Manos — will be performed back to back Feb. 21-24.
Director David L. Keller, who also serves as dean of the college’s school of humanities, said the two plays are at the heart of the theater program’s mission.
“Part of the mission of our theater is to recognize that theater engages our culture. It supports traditional values that we feel need to be supported, but it also challenges us in areas of our culture where we think we need to be challenged. It’s more than an entertainment forum. We think theater is a powerful force in engaging our world, and these two one-act plays … raise our consciousness about things in history that we need to keep track of and be reminded of,” he said.
“Florence” — which Keller described as a “very realistic, powerful, dramatic piece” — traces the story of Mama Whitney, who is planning on traveling to New York to convince her daughter, Florence, to return home, rather than continue to pursue an acting career in a nation prejudiced against black people.
“It’s only a four-person play. Each character represents views that both whites and blacks had about the position of African-Americans in our culture, what position they really should take — whether there should be segregation with equality, whether there should be equality at all, whether there should be integration with equality — so it’s a very realistic play, but it’s also kind of a wonderful parable about what our world was like in 1949,” Keller added.
“Walk, Don’t Ride,” — which chronicles the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s through song and words — is a much different piece, according to Keller. The play is a celebration of three elements of the civil rights movement — the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, the Nashville Lunch-counter Sit-Ins of 1960, and the Freedom Riders.
“It’s very presentational. It’s real history, but presented very theatrically,” he said.
While the two plays have very different styles, Keller said they provide a good account of what life was like during that time in history.
“The first act, before intermission, is what America was like in the Jim Crow South in the 1940s. After intermission, you come back, and this is what the civil rights movement accomplished. So it traces history a little bit,” he said.
Rochester College junior Richard Hoke II, of Detroit, will perform in both plays — which he said are full of emotion.
“The plays are really informative, but I think they are going to be more impactful on the emotions — you can feel what we feel. They kind of reflect the actual emotional part of the struggle that a lot of people forget about. I mean, it was for equality, but there were a lot of tears shed and there was a lot of people hurt,” he said.
While Keller notes that the plays cover a serious subject, he said the performances do not contain any harsh language and are suitable for children as young as upper elementary school age, with parental guidance. The message spans all ages, he added.
“This is a history lesson for our younger audiences, and we just think it’s a really important history lesson. For people as old as I am, it brings back memories of what we were doing at that time, and how we were either paying attention to what was going on or were oblivious to it. It’s pretty sobering,” he said.
Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 21-23, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24 in the Rochester College Theatre, on the campus of Rochester College, 800 W. Avon Road in Rochester Hills.
Tickets are $10. For tickets, group sales, or more information, visit www.rc.edu/rctheatre, call (248) 218-2149 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.