WMU News

World premiere of 'Rosa Parks' at WMU

Jan. 18, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- The first authorized dramatization of the life of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks will have its world premiere in February at Western Michigan University.

Titled simply "Rosa Parks," the dramatic and musical tribute was written by Dr. Von Washington, WMU professor of theatre, with Gregory Reed, Parks' legal representative. Washington is directing the production, which opens Feb. 1 and runs through Feb. 10 in the Dalton Center Multi-Media Room.

The show is a powerful stage adaptation of Parks' life and examines her role in the nation's history and as a catalyst in the civil rights movement. Music for the show was gleaned from a recently released compact disc titled "A Rosa Parks Tribute," which was based on a book about Parks co-written by Reed and titled "Quiet Strength."

Washington for years had been interested in writing a play about Parks, in part because he thought his wife, local actress Fran Washington, would be well suited for the lead role. Fran Washington will play Parks in the upcoming production.

Being tapped to write the only official stage production was like a dream come true for him.

"I wanted to tell children the story of the day Rosa Parks sat down and stopped the world because I felt that that was a moment that had motivated me in the things that I did in my life," Washington says. "She was an example for me and I had been living that life example. And to have an opportunity to put that on stage was just gravy, just pure gravy."

Reed says he had been aware of Washington's work for more than a dozen years before asking the WMU playwright and director to take on the project. Initially, Reed had asked Washington to read a script written by another playwright. After Washington gave suggestions on how that script might be improved, Reed asked Washington to take a stab at developing his own play.

"I had been keeping tabs on his career over the years," Reed says. "I knew that he attains a high level of care and professionalism in anything that he does. So it was a mutual thing. I was looking to have something done to teach her legacy to audiences today and to generations to come. I knew of the quality of Mr. Washington's work, as well as his wife's. I figured he could do the job right."

Washington began working on the script four years ago while he was directing one of his plays at the University of Missouri. He wrote the play during his time off and wove the script around music from the compact disc along with other songs that were in the public domain.

He researched the history of the civil rights movement in the university's library and read five books on Parks' life from which he fashioned a one-woman play. He recently decided to expand the production so that additional actresses play Parks at different stages in her life.

After several revisions, the piece received the stamp of approval from Parks' attorney. Reed says there are some 15 dramatizations that have been put together on the civil rights leader, but that Washington's is the only officially authorized production and it's more than a bus story.

Both men agree that most people are familiar with Parks' refusal in December 1955 to give up her bus seat to a white man, igniting a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Ala. But many are not aware of Parks' long record in the civil rights movement and her role in galvanizing resistance to segregation and helping to bring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to prominence.

Washington says his show seeks to draw a picture of the inner workings of Rosa Parks and how she came to be the person she is. People often have the misperception that Parks was the woman who more or less incidentally sparked the bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat, but her role in the battle for equal rights went far beyond that.

"There was more to her life than that," Washington says. "What you find out is that she was actually being groomed for a moment like that. She was very involved with the civil rights movement since she was a child."

Reed is thankful that Washington undertook the project and credits his diligence and the University's support with making it a reality.

"I commend him for taking the time to uplift her legacy for humankind and I'm sure that this will serve us well now and for generations yet to come. I also thank the University for supporting this worthwhile endeavor."

The play's premiere comes as Parks' life and work has garnered more attention. After moving to Detroit after the boycott, Parks served as an administrative assistant for more than 20 years with U.S. Rep. John Conyers and worked with the Detroit Congressman to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which motivates youth to reach their potential. More recently, President Clinton and prominent lawmakers presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 1999, and a museum and library in her honor opened in December in Montgomery at the site of her arrest.

Now 87, Parks continues to make her home in Detroit, and Washington is hopeful that she may come to see a performance. Reed says it will depend on her health as to whether she can make the trip to Kalamazoo.

"Her birthday is Feb. 4," Washington says. "There is a matinee that day. (WMU) President (Elson S.) Floyd has invited her. We hope that she will come, but if she doesn't, a close representative or family member is to come in her place."

Starring in the production in addition to Fran Washington, who portrays Parks in her later years, are Lakisha Bowen and Phoebe Kelly, who play Parks at earlier ages. The student ensemble includes Te'koa Coleman, Megan Hissong-Lloyd, Ron Cheek, Tunisia Hardison, Sylvia Beasley, Abby Platt, Daniel M. Spagnuolo, Dayna Dantzler, Kim Henderson, Alaina Williams, Angela Greenup, Teresa Olivett, Jarek Khan, Esther Triggs, Nancy Quasarano, Daniel Adams, Michael Agrusso, and Jay Donnell.

A small choir composed of WMU students and members of the WMU Gospel Choir also will take part in the production. Curtis Guledge, a music teacher for Benton Harbor Public Schools and a WMU graduate and past director of the WMU Gospel Choir, is music director. Several of his current students also are part of the choir. Marlyce Roberson, a well-known singer in the region, will be a featured soloist.

The production team includes Michele Coughlin (costume design), Chris Ericson (sound design), Michael Freese (scenic design), and Andrew Nagel (lighting design). Projections for the production are designed by guest artist Kevin Abbott.

Tickets range from $5 to $14 and can be purchased from the Gilmore Theatre Ticket Office at (616) 387-6222 weekdays from noon to 5 p.m. and two hours before each performance.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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