Musical drama "Fifty Years Later" to debut on March 20

Lights shone on a stage, empty but for two narrators.  The first addressed the imaginary audience, her voice projecting nuance and well-timed emphasis.

“Diane Nash later said,” she paused and held character, turning imperceptibly toward the dark wings.  “Diane Nash later said…” Her brow furrowed and laughter erupted from the set behind her.

“I’m sorry,” chuckled the girl who would be Diane Nash.  “Where are we, page four?”

She stepped on stage and flipped through her script as the narrators giggled, now entirely out of character.  With one last snicker, she cleared her throat, becomes Diane Nash, and delivered her line. 

As if on cue, the jocularity dissipated and is replaced with somber intensity.  Given the subject of the play, one hardly wonders why.

Dramatizing the Civil Rights Movement

Fifty Years Later is a musical drama that examines the social and political upheaval of the 1960s, sparing little of the violence, racism and fundamental injustices that pervaded the country.  Told through songs, multimedia displays and monologues, this production aims to unsettle but ultimately educate the audience. 

With this drama, director Mark Robison has finally found the creative outlet for an idea that he said has been “rattling around in my brain for the last four or five years.”  That idea was inspired by the work of James Weldon Johnson, a prominent black American activist of the early twentieth century. “I wanted to dramatize his poems and it eventually morphed into this,” the Union College English professor said, indicating the stage and the students. “The protest songs sucked me in, too, and so it became a commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Indeed, the songs have become the foundation upon which the play is built.  With the help of music professor Dan Lynn, these gospel hymns, freedom songs and soulful refrains resound in full harmony, often accompanied by actor-musicians Slade Lane, Pablo Colindres, and J-Fiah Reeves on guitar, bass, and percussion.

“This play is about the music,” said Robison, his toes tapping along to one of the many songs.  “The stories just fill in around it.”

These stories flow from the music, but are also inspired by the events, poems and figures of the Civil Rights Movement. And because of its broad and diverse nature, Robison wanted the second act of Fifty Years Later to be conceptualized, written, and directed entirely by the students themselves.

Kyle Berg is one of these who will help direct and then act in many of the scenes, some of which he has written.  For one of his vignettes, he draws inspiration from a poem about the Birmingham bomb of 1963.  “It really speaks to me,” said Berg, who has dramatized the evocative piece and woven in a haunting Sam Cooke song.  “I think it will speak to the audience as well.”

Trusting the Process

Because there is so much content, creativity and original material, Robison is learning to “trust the process,” something he asks of the students as well.  “The challenge is to keep moving forward,” he said.  “You have to just keep moving forward.”

With, at the time, just weeks to go before night, this momentum is imperative.

“We’re just writing and workshopping as we go,” says Robison, watching Berg set a scene for the opening of act two.  “I don’t know of any production that does what we’re doing.”

Robison leans over the piano, less of a director than a quiet observer, while Berg assembles the team and describes for the first time a scene he has written. 

His scene opens on a present-day high school classroom.  A young teacher opens discussion about the horror of racism, bigotry and stereotypes, but through a series of subtle, humorous and well-crafted lines, accidentally demonstrates his own racism. 

Berg ended the scene and called for volunteers to fill a role.

“Can I be the teacher?” asked one student.

“No you can’t,” chuckled Berg, “I wrote myself in that part.”  The students laughed and began claiming the handful of roles as high school students demonstrating various levels of ignorance.  The characters filled, Berg rejoined his peers and Robison took the floor, director once again.

He set the schedule for the following week, congratulated students on “hanging in there” and being “real troopers,” and dismissed them for the night. 

It was after 9:00 p.m., but the students have grown accustomed to the demanding schedule. Working three nights per week, these students will have accumulated hundreds of hours by their first performance at the end of March.  “It adds up,” Robison chuckled.  “It certainly adds up.”

But these students are dedicated to the process. Knowing the power of this play, they have invested in the vision and are striving for perfection.

“The impact it will have,” said AJ Valcin. “To be a part of that is an honor and a privilege.” 

Fifty Years Later debuts Thursday March 20 at 7:00 p.m. in Woods Auditorium in the Don Love building.  Tickets will be $10 for general admission and $7 for children, students, and senior citizens. Online ticket purchases will be available at the Union College Campus Store, through the link online found at www.ucollege.edu/drama, or at the door one hour before show time.

Performance Dates:

  • Thursday, March 20, 7:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 22, 8:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, March 23, 2:00 p.m.
  • Thursday, March 27, 7:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 29, 8:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, March 30, 2:00 p.m.

For more info visit www.ucollege.edu/drama or on Facebook.

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