'A Line in the Sand' Provokes Feelings on Both Sides of Racial Divide

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

NORFOLK -- Director Timothy Douglas calls it "a potential powder keg." Helen Hayes Award-winning actress Caroline Clay likens it to "trying to put 'The Oresteia' together." Playwright Chris Hanna recalls the exact point in the creative process at which figurative "fire alarms went off."

It's safe to say that no one is blase about "Line in the Sand," the new history-based drama at Virginia Stage Company that recently began a three-week run in Norfolk. The brainchild of Hanna, the company's artistic director since 2004, the play recalls a 50-year-old chapter in civil rights history: Massive Resistance, the state-authorized closure of Virginia public schools to try to keep them from being racially integrated.

The city of Norfolk was the epicenter of the crisis, whose imposing name was coined by Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.

In September 1958 -- more than four years after Brown v. Board of Education, and a year after federal troops enforced desegregation in Little Rock -- Virginia Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr. shuttered six Norfolk schools to keep out 17 young African Americans whose admission had been ordered by a federal District Court. Only after further court rulings pronounced the closings unconstitutional and illegal -- and after a broadcast by Edward R. Murrow directed national attention to the crisis -- did the schools reopen, on Feb. 2, 1959. The young African American pioneers gained their own moniker: "The Norfolk 17."

This episode in civil rights history, though, comes as a surprise to some. Hanna, who grew up in Westchester, N.Y., says lived in the Norfolk area for 15 years before someone mentioned Massive Resistance to him. "I was shocked, because I hadn't heard the term," he says. He wasn't the only one. When he asked around, he recalls, "half the people I talked to had never heard of it -- and the other half said: 'Oh, you don't want to go there! Let's not talk about that.' "

The community was long reluctant to dwell on the emotionally fraught events, says Rodney Suiter, an area native who plays a parent of a Norfolk 17 child in "Line in the Sand." Suiter, who is a local radio show host, says the region's residents "never did talk about" Massive Resistance. The community's approach, he says, was "Let's forget it. Let's not discuss it."

Peggy Haile-McPhillips, Norfolk's city historian, observes that the Norfolk 17 were under intense pressure to keep a stiff upper lip about the era's trauma, because "it was so important for the African American community to have [school desegregation] work." She observes that "a lot of times, you don't talk about something at the time, and then years go by, and you don't talk about it because you didn't talk about it."

Hanna felt no such reticence after assuming the reins of the Virginia Stage Company -- the 30-year-old troupe that premiered the successful Broadway musical "The Secret Garden." He has an intense interest in developing new plays that focus on the culture of Hampton Roads, as the geographical nexus around Norfolk is called. Two years ago, for instance, he developed "King Lear: The Storm at Home," a Shakespeare adaptation that incorporated oral history from local elder-care givers.

Many regional theaters "have very little to do, in an integral way, with the regions they exist in," says Hanna, while at the stage company's downtown offices, around the corner from the stained-glass-bedecked former vaudeville palace that houses the company. Hanna wants it to devote a mainstage slot each year to a production developed through community dialogue. ("Line in the Sand" kicks off the company's "American Soil" project, dedicated to such initiatives.)

But he had a tough time selling his board members on a play that tackled the events of 1958-59. Time was on his side, though. As the 50th anniversary of the Feb. 2 school reopenings neared, the city of Norfolk began preparing an official commemoration of the end of Massive Resistance. Mustering all his personal "artistic capital," Hanna says, he persuaded his colleagues to sign on to a parallel theatrical tribute.

He conducted interviews, read 1950s newspapers and hunted down original court documents, alchemizing hard facts into a script VSC calls "an imagined drama based on historical events." Some of the play's figures are borrowed from real life: These include Norfolk Mayor W. Fred Duckworth (played by New York and regional-theater actor Tracy Griswold) and Virginia political mover and shaker William J. Prieur Jr. (Dean Nolen, recently seen in the "Roman Repertory" at D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company). Vivian Carter Mason, who helped prep the Norfolk 17 academically and psychologically for the integration experience, became a lead character. (Clay, who pocketed a Helen Hayes award for her performance in the tour of "Doubt," shoulders the role.)

About year ago, the company mounted a workshop of the piece: It was a revelatory disaster. "We did two public performances and were met with tremendous controversy," Hanna says. "Oh, yeah." He gives a rueful laugh.

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