How the Real-Life Freedom Riders Inspired a New Musical

Interview   How the Real-Life Freedom Riders Inspired a New Musical Playing at NYMF August 1–5, Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical shines a musical spotlight on a powerful moment in American history.
Richard Allen and Taran Gray
Richard Allen and Taran Gray

Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical, playing Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre August 1-5 as part of the 2017 New York Musical Festival, bridges a significant sliver of American social history—seven months and six days in 1961, to be precise, when civil rights activists rode interstate buses into the stubbornly segregated South. They did this to challenge the non-enforcement of the Supreme Court’s decision that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.

Somebody had to do it, and on May 4, 1961, 13 brave souls (seven black, six white) ventured forth from D.C. to Dixie via Greyhound and Trailways. They were followed by 423 others in at least 60 other Freedom Ride forays into the inhospitable South.

These turbulent times have been heavily documented, but Richard Allen is the first to see the makings of a musical. To that end, he wrote the book and, with Taran Gray, songs for Freedom Riders.

In the history textbooks that Allen and Gray grew up on, the freedom rides were little more than a fleeting blur between Rosa Parks’ memorable stance and Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Allen’s real interest in it got piqued much later by an Oprah Winfred special, “then I just couldn’t get enough of it, so I watched a PBS special and an American Experience special--and then I started reading.” Two summers ago, he began adapting this freedom-riders protest into a stage piece.

“You can see in these specials how singing gave activists courage,” Allen says. “That, to me, made the material musical. Music was so key to the ordeal that it felt natural to tell the story that way. Within the black community, music is hugely important.”

Eighteen songs were written for the show, and Gray’s research into the sounds of the ‘60s shows. “There’s a lot of Motown and a lot of gospel, appropriately,” he says. “What we tried to do is to match the music with the story arch. Toward the end, the music gets more modern—and, by modern, I mean 2017 musical-theatre modern.

“I think we did something really interesting with the music,” Gray continues. “We broke a bit of a rule with a few of the musical-theatre songs that don’t progress the storyline—where the music suspends the moment, and there’s a pause in the story.”

Case-in-point is an emotional highpoint for the central character, John Lewis, who is now the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. In the show, as played by Anthony Chatmon II, he is a 21-year-old firebrand on the racial front lines.

Flip through the photos of John Lewis visiting the show below:

That moment occurs, says Gray, after Lewis’ brutalizing first confrontation with violence as a nonviolent protester. “He says to the other riders, ‘Give me a second,’ and, at that moment, we have this suspension where we get to hear John’s heart. It’s our ‘I want’ song, and we really get to hear his passion for a world of true equality.”

Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, and James Farmer are subsidiary characters in the musical, which focuses primarily on three civil rights icons: Lewis, Diane Nash (played by Brynn Williams), and John Seigenthaler (played by Ciaran McCarthy).

Director Whitney White arranged for the real Diane Nash to phone in her feedback to the cast. “In our show, we deal with her rise,” says Allen. ”The freedom rides put Diane on the map with the other civil rights leaders, who were all men at the time.”

Seigenthaler’s two-year involvement in the fray (1960–1962), as RFK’s administrative assistant in the thick of the freedom-rides fights, punctuated his career at The Nashville Tennessean—from police-beat reporter to editor-in-chief.

“I got some pushback having Seigenthaler in the show,” Allen admits. “A lot of people believe that the Civil Rights Movement belongs only to blacks, and it doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s jarring to see a white character playing an important part here.

“But, for this movement, Seigenthaler did. Robert Kennedy sent him into the trenches to represent the Justice Department and protect these freedom riders.

“Growing up with the Gores and Kennedys, he was liberal, so he really believed in this idea of freedom and equality. I thought he was a natural character for our show because he represents a lot of people—people who believe the same liberal things he does but aren’t in the action of it. At some point, that’s the big turn for him. He realizes he’s got to make a choice. ‘Now I’m no longer the newspaperman I’ve been all my life. I’m now in the action of it. I’m now an activist, fighting for these people.”

All three main characters mature into their own moment of truth, says Allen. “That’s been our struggle—to really show where they come from and where they finish.”

“What we wanted to do,” adds Gray, “was bring humanity to these characters. They are real people with real struggles and conflicts. We wanted that to show. And, secondly, we wanted to show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. That’s so important because today we look at all the things going on and we go, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ It’s so overwhelming. We don’t feel we can get involved or do anything. In the ’60s, that wasn’t the case. You went out, and you kinda did what you could.”

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