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GMU Makes Art From State's History

By Michael Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page VA21

History and art come together onstage in Theater of the First Amendment's premiere production of "Open the Door, Virginia!," which was scheduled to open last night at George Mason University's Harris Theater.

The play, which runs through Feb. 6, is based on the homegrown story of 117 African American high school students who challenged Prince Edward County in 1951 by striking over the inadequate facilities of all-black R.R. Moton High School in Farmville.

Joy Jones performs in Theater of the First Amendment's "Open the Door, Virginia!" at George Mason University's Harris Theater. The "choreodrama" runs through Feb. 6.

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The legal challenge, which centered on unequal county schools for whites and blacks, ultimately landed before the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices combined the Prince Edward case with four similar ones that led to the court's landmark 1954 ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which made segregated schools unconstitutional.

GMU's production is a theatrical hybrid called choreodrama, which uses dance to tell the story, augmented here by a seamless blending of original songs and the words of some of those trail-blazing students as well as people who benefited from their actions.

"Open the Door, Virginia!" is the brainchild of director and choreographer Dianne McIntyre, who drew upon the still-vivid memories of some of the now retirement-age students who led the strike, and Olu Dara, a composer and musician who mingles Mississippi blues, jazz/funk and African themes in unique style. The result is a thought-provoking, assumption-challenging presentation that evokes a wide range of emotions.

"All of the words in the piece are from interviews I conducted with the participants of the events here in Virginia, a tapestry of their words blended with the movement and the music," McIntyre said. "We focus less on the strike and more on what happened after the Supreme Court decision, when Prince Edward County closed down its school system for five years rather than admit those 'colored' children."

One of the children who was unable to attend school was Rita Moseley, who missed seventh and eighth grades during the shutdown. Her parents sent the shy, withdrawn girl, who had never been away from home, across the state to live with strangers in Blacksburg so she could receive an education.

"I'm hoping it will say to people, 'This is what happened, this is what should never happen again, and this is an education in itself,' " said Moseley, now 57, reflecting on the play in which her memories and thoughts are expressed. "Once people know what happened, they may say, 'We don't want to repeat this anywhere.' "

Moseley still lives in Farmville and walks proudly into the school, now Prince Edward High, where she works as secretary to the principal.

Half a dozen performers and one musician bring past and present to life in the play. Dara's original compositions, some of which have just melody and no lyrics, are performed mostly a capella. They occasionally lead the action, which otherwise does not stop for a musical interlude.

"The story moves along pretty fast," Dara said, "so it's not like you stand up and sing a full song and then go on to the next speaking scene." Dara spent the last six weeks in Fairfax, watching McIntyre rehearse the cast and instantly composing music for his longtime collaborator, with whom he worked on Theater of the First Amendment's productions of "Blues Rooms" (1998) and "In Living Colors" (1992). McIntyre was changing the script daily right up to opening night, with which Dara said he was comfortable.

"If Diane wants music, she'll say to me, 'I need music right here.' So I actually write the music right on the spot in just a couple of minutes, the way we've been doing it for many years. I don't even write it down. We just teach the cast, they get it down pat in a few minutes, and we move on," Dara said.

Dara, who said the practice could be unique in musical theater, said he discovered he had the talent to create songs rapidly out of necessity, when McIntyre simply demanded it of him.

McIntyre is aware that what might be a remote history lesson for some is a sharp personal experience for others who are still in the area. Some of those who lived through the experience, including John A. Stokes of Lanham, one of the student strike leaders, have visited rehearsals and talked with the ensemble.

"I'm aware that in some quarters, sentiments may still be delicate and even raw over this issue, so I've tried not to name specific individuals," McIntyre said. "I don't do this with a hammer over people's heads, but hopefully it will have people looking not just at the past but also at today, at the treasure that is education for all, and ask if we value it as much as those people who fought for it so long ago. We end with students in Farmville today, who do have a sense of optimism."

McIntyre's choreography last year for "Crowns," a musical look at what its creators say is the traditional love affair between African American women in the South and their hats, helped that show become last season's biggest hit at Arena Stage, which sold over 60,000 tickets and brought the show back for an unusual summer encore. "Crowns" was part of an effort to preserve a cultural touchstone, while McIntyre said "Open the Door, Virginia!" asks, "What are we doing to preserve the treasure that is educational opportunity?"

"Open the Door, Virginia" runs through Feb. 6 at the Harris Theater of George Mason University's Center for the Arts, Braddock Road and Route 123. Showtime is 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays (except Feb. 6, with 2 p.m. showtime). Tickets are $25, available at 703-218-6500 or or www.tickets.com. For more information, visit www.gmu.edu/cfa.

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