*“We don’t serve your kind here, nigger” is the explosive opening line of the New York Musical Festival and Richard Allen Enterprises presentation of Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical, which recently played at The Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row in New York City. These words lead John Lewis, played by Anthony Chatmon II, to decide that he is willing to die for the cause of civil rights, and the musical follows his courageous journey through agitation, civil unrest and the founding of a movement that turned the tide for America’s survival.
Lewis’ cause attracts some of the most iconic civil rights figures of the 1960s; including Martin Luther King, Jr. (Guy Lockard), Ralph Abernathy (Brandon Michael Nase), Stokely Carmichael (Nygel D. Robinson), John Siegenthaler (Ciarán McCarthy), Robert F. Kennedy (Barry Anderson), and the original 13 Freedom Riders of the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE).
The musical features a cast of powerful performers who sing, dance, and shout the struggle, commitment, sacrifice, and victory in a story tracing the steps of activists who boldly challenge the injustice of the Jim Crow South by riding buses in mixed groups armed with legal knowledge and nonviolent training to make a change. The cast includes Michael Nigro, Scott Redmond, Joy Yandell, Toni Elizabeth White and Don Rey who sing with soul and heart. There are no small parts in this musical. Each singer projected immense power when it is their time to shine.
From scene one at CORE Headquarters, where the nonviolent movement starts to organize, the cast belts out their commitment by singing “Ride to Glory” to a rapt audience who was awestruck by the power, persona, and harmony presented on the stage. The dynamic energy gaining strength, courage, and determination throughout this musical was Diane Nash played by Brynn Williams. She was captivating, singing with a pure, sweet, soprano voice that rocked, rolled, and often sweetened the atmosphere with the power to bring you to tears. Just as the real Diane Nash was an integral part of the organization of this movement, Brynn Williams brings a beauty, innocence, and integrity to her portrayal.
Act one moves fast, but with depth, as Lewis is faced with the reality of his mission. Chatman sings the role with a beautiful tenor, the compassion in his eyes as he asks himself, “Is this really who I am?” He answers with every scene, reaching for inspiration with the song, “Mama Always Said,” and reminding Diane Nash of how significant she is to him by singing “You Are the Wind.”
The story moves from the halls of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Justice, through bus terminals in Virginia; Rock Hill, South Carolina; and Montgomery, Alabama, then on to Bull Connors home in Birmingham, passing through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) gathering in New York City; back south to New Orleans; and finally to the First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee. All the while, the volunteers sing songs of encouragement like “Tell Them Something,” “We’ll Get There,” and the joyful, victorious “Freedom Song,” that will have audiences rising to their feet.
Act Two opens with gospel fervor as the cast sings “Come Down to the River” asking anyone who will stand for justice to come, and get their spirit renewed.
The range and spirit of the music for this production is due to the talent of Taran Gray (music, lyrics), a songwriter and music producer who has worked with artists across multiple labels including Epic, Motown, Atlantic, Universal, and Interscope. Each song tells a story in musical theater style, yet addressed a culture of gospel and R&B orientation that took the show to another level.
Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical is the story of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis, who walks with a humble spirit and a grand vision for generations to save the soul of America. Some may say that everyone knows the civil rights story, but writer and producer Richard Allen has written a stage piece that doesn’t just re-tell history but reminds us of its relevance today.
In 2016, Freedom Riders won the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) Inaugural Beta Award for workshop productions; it returned to the festival for a second year as a full production. Nominated in various categories, Freedom Riders is the winner of the 2017 New York Musical Festival’s (NYMF) Award for Outstanding Music and nominees Richard Allen and Taran Gray also received Special Citations for the musical’s social relevance and impact.
This is a musical that will gain support and applause wherever it travels. It has all the elements to foster its longevity: an inspiring story, amazing music with transforming lyrics, a brilliant cast, and great musicianship (this production showcases conductor and keyboardist Stephen Cuevas, drummer Tristan Marzeski, and bassist Corey Schutzer).
At a time when many Americans fear that the gains of the civil rights movement will be lost, Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical brings back the passion, commitment, pain and victory of the ‘60s. It made me ask myself the question, would I get on the bus? After attending a performance of such magnitude, my spirit gave a resounding, Yes.
Elisa Kimble is a performing artist, writer, and poet who lives in Harlem, New York.