The Catholic University of America

June 18, 2014

Professors to Premiere One-Woman Show Based on Civil Rights Martyr

 
  Marietta Hedges (right) rehearses her one-woman show, Selma 65, in Hartke, as director Eleanor Holdridge looks on.
 

At the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an unsuccessful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 that brought attention to the exclusion of African American voters from the electoral process resulted in 600 marchers being attacked by local police with tear gas and clubs. After watching a television broadcast of the violence — now referred to as “Bloody Sunday” — Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife living in Detroit, knew she had to do something to help.

Leaving her children and husband behind, Liuzzo travelled to Alabama to offer her assistance in whatever way she could. For the next few weeks, she helped coordinate an additional march. Then, on the night of March 25, after shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery airport with 19-year old African-American Leroy Moton, she was shot and killed by a group of Ku Klux Klan members. Included in the group of Klan members was undercover FBI agent Tommy Rowe.

Though she was one of the significant martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, Liuzzo was viciously smeared after her death and remains, to this day, somewhat unknown. Catholic University drama professors Marietta Hedges and Eleanor Holdridge hope to change that, with a new one-woman show, Selma 65, which is set to premiere this fall in New York City.

Hedges, an associate professor and head of the M.F.A. acting program, commissioned playwright Catherine Filloux to write the one-woman show based on Liuzzo’s life after visiting the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., in 2011.

“The information they gave about her (at the center) said that when Viola was killed, she was singing, ‘We shall overcome’ and she also looked directly in the face of her killers,” Hedges said. “That always stuck with me.”

For the past several years, Hedges and Filloux have been working together to perfect the script, in which Hedges portrays both Liuzzo and Rowe, the FBI informant who was later tried and acquitted for his involvement in the murder. During the play, which is directed by Holdridge, head of the M.F.A. directing program, Hedges switches back and forth between the two characters, to show their interwoven stories and the complex choices each had to make.

 
Director Eleanor Holdridge  

This summer, the three women are working together at Catholic University to put the finishing touches on their production. Hedges is working with vocal and movement coaches to nail down the different characterizations of Liuzzo and Rowe and Holdridge is collaborating with artists to come up with a design scheme for the play. A particularly challenging aspect of this show is depicting real people who are not very well documented, Hedges said.

“It’s a real challenge because I’ve done a lot of research and there’s a lot of information, but that only helps so much,” she said. “Ultimately I have to create her and make her relatable to the audience.”

Switching back and forth between the two characters over the duration of the play will be a challenge, but it is one Hedges and Holdridge say they are looking forward to.

“I think part of the joy of watching it is to see the transformative power of theatre,” Holdridge said. “Both of these characters can make a choice to become who they want to be in these complex situations, so to watch an actress make a choice to become each of these characters becomes part of the fun.”

In the end, Hedges and Holdridge hope the play helps audiences reflect on the history of the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act, which was passed after the Selma marches and banned discrimination in voting. 2015 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the act.

“(The Voting Rights Act) is something people died for — people were killed in awful ways so black people could vote, which they had the right to do,” Hedges said. “Though they had that right, in the South, being a black person and registering to vote could get you killed. People need to know the history and they need to know about this woman.”

Hedges said she hopes audiences will be inspired by Liuzzo’s example to take action when they see injustice.

“One of the great things about this play is that Viola says several times throughout it, ‘It’s not enough to write a check, you have to live by your actions,’” Hedges said. “She saw Bloody Sunday on TV and she said, ‘That’s it, I’m going down there.’ She got off her couch and she went down there and it got her killed. It’s tragic, but it’s like, ‘Hey, what if more people got off their couches?’”

Selma 65 will make its world premiere Sept. 26 at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, 74 E. 4th St., New York, N.Y. Following that production, the show will tour four universities, including Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.; Howard Community College in Columbia, Md.; SUNY Geneseo in Geneseo, N.Y.; and Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, Conn.

For more information on the play, visit catherinefilloux.com.

  

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