King responded to the missive the only way available to him — in the margins of the newspaper that contained the clergymen’s letter, handed out pieces at a time to his lawyers and reassembled at 16th Street Baptist Church, which served as the movement’s local headquarters during the Birmingham campaign.
King’s letter took on a life of its own. His declaration, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed," gave the movement a mission statement, a justification for nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.
Discussions on how the 50th anniversary of the Letter from Birmingham Jail should be commemorated began earlier this year. Keith Cromwell, executive director of Red Mountain Theater Company, realized that Red Mountain could help pay tribute to King by producing a play that would bring his words, almost as if from his own mouth, to the audience.
"The letter almost feels like the words of a prophet of his era," Cromwell said.
The play uses the entire original text of King's letter, as well as the open letter published by the Birmingham clergymen that questioned King’s methods. In the stage production of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the eight clergymen assemble around King, who silently listens to their words in a jail cell, before delivering his response.
Birmingham actor Cecil Washington portrays the civil rights leader in a performance that captures King’s charisma and verve, his intensity and passion.
“I was very intimidated by the role at first,” Washington said, not only because of the material’s historical nature, but because the play isn’t a traditional drama — King and the clergymen spend much of the play seated, and Washington rises only to deliver his monologue.
Part of his preparation involved watching and listening to historical footage of King, and also memorizing the entire letter, which translates to 36 pages of uninterrupted monologue — no small feat for any actor.
“If I want to honor King’s work and his letter, I have to really go there completely,” he said.
Washington’s performance is both physically and emotionally draining, but he says the reaction from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. “People will tell me that they were hanging on their seats.”
Casting the roles of the eight clergymen is a unique process: Instead of one actor filling each part for the duration of the touring production’s run, the company asks each community to select eight prominent local figures to play the roles. The performance at JSU will feature Jacksonville High School Principal Rick Carter, Jacksonville City Council President Mark Jones and Derek Staples, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
“It allows us to shape the piece to the communities we’re trying to reach,” Cromwell explained.
The production also features nightly "talkbacks," during which audience members can speak directly to the cast, director and each other in a discussion about race, civil rights and socioeconomic disparity.
“People get to a point where they’re desensitized to what appears to be constant dialogue about race,” said Cromwell. “But how often do we really get to talk about it?”
Washington said he gets a great many questions about the actual message of the letter, what it meant at the time and how it’s still relevant today. Cromwell noted that audiences often wonder how far society has come and how far it can still go.
“There’s profound hope, especially in hearing these words,” he said. “We’ve come so far, but we can do so much more.”
Washington is the face of the play. He’s the one who delivers King’s speech and it’s his shoulders that bear the burden of bringing the words to life. There’s no wrong interpretation of the play, says Washington, as long as it starts a dialogue.
“I hope people realize that we’re really all the same,” he said. “We all want the same things. All our blood is the same color.”
IF YOU GO…
WHAT: “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” performed by the Red Mountain Theater Company
WHEN: Two tour stops: Oct. 17-18 at 7 p.m., Historic Ritz Theatre in Talladega. Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at JSU’s Ernest Stone Center Theater, Jacksonville.
TICKETS: In Talladega, tickets are $6 for students and $12 for adults. Jacksonville performance is free.
INFO: To learn more about the play, visit www.redmountaintheatre.org. For Talladega performances, contact the theatre at 256-315-0000 or visit www.talladegaritz.com. For Jacksonville performance, contact the JSU box office at 256-782-5648.