Norfolk Play Revisits Life On Front 'Line' Of Civil Rights

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.

The script, as it stood, "equally angered black audience and white audience members," he says. It particularly outraged viewers who had lived through Massive Resistance.

"It was so far from anything that even resembled what we went through," says Andrew Heidelberg, one of the members of the Norfolk 17 who attended the workshop. The author of the book "The Norfolk 17: A Personal Narrative on Desegregation in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1958-1962," Heidelberg thought that the play, at that point, perpetuated a facile myth: that the desegregation of the Norfolk schools, achieved through legal wrangling, without public physical violence, was a triumph. But for him, enrolling at a previously all-white high school meant bearing the brunt of hatred and slurs, not just briefly but for years.

"Inside those walls was hell," he says. "They called us those names -- listen to this now -- every day, at least a thousand times a day. And I'm being generous! For three years!" Five decades later, he confesses, he still tears up when he talks about the experience. "You can't forget that stuff," he says.

Mary Jane Birdsong -- one of the barred white students who became known as the Lost Class -- thought that the play failed to acknowledge her group's painful experience. Used as pawns by politicians, she says she and her classmates and teachers valued education and "wanted our schools to stay open regardless of who they taught." Nevertheless, in subsequent decades, whenever the alumni held a reunion, "some reporter would dig it up and would interview us and then would write us up -- and we were the bad guys!"

Heidelberg, Birdsong and other workshop attendees gave Hanna an earful. "I was shocked at how naive I'd been" in writing a simplistic "happy ending," Hanna admits. Returning to the drawing board, he solicited more oral histories and plunged into rewrites.

Douglas, whose credits include directing the world premiere of August Wilson's "Radio Golf" at Yale Repertory Theatre (and who staged Round House Theatre's 2007 "A Lesson Before Dying"), is generally hopeful that the play's latest incarnation "will inspire a progressive conversation" about racial relations:

"We have a lot of work to do with this conundrum of 'How do we become Americans together? How do we continue the discussion without descending into blame-blame? And that's becoming more interesting than actually finding ways to come together. It's such a challenge -- one worthy of continuing."

Clay, who joined "Line in the Sand" to work with Douglas, agrees that the play's themes will resonate broadly. "This is a peeling of an onion that I think is really going to make some eyes water beyond Virginia -- and I think that's a good thing," she says.

Birdsong thinks that, whether or not the revised play does justice to all aspects of the Massive Resistance story, it will at least underscore the significance of public education. "Without a good strong education, there's no hope for our economy. There's no hope for democracy," she says.

Birdsong and Heidelberg have seen the revised play. Birdsong says she is, for the most part, thrilled with the play's "responsible, sensible" and theatrically powerful treatment of historical facts.

For Heidelberg, the City of Norfolk's official commemoration has been cathartic. "This was the first time in 50 years that anybody had ever acknowledged the terrible and horrific things that we went through," he says. But after viewing the current "Line in the Sand" production (which runs through March 15), he says he thinks the play, while theatrically effective, still doesn't address the ordeal that the Norfolk 17 endured.

As for Hanna, he's been holding discussion after performances, and says that attendee interest and engagement has been "amazing."

He recalls that when he first conceived of the show, "I really had thought naively that, this is 50 years ago, what attachment could [audiences] hold to the story now? And no -- it's as immediate as yesterday."

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