New Jersey arts and entertainment news, features and event previews.


Bruce Chadwick

originally published: 06/12/2022

In the spring of 1961, hundreds of young people, black and white, boarded buses from the north and headed to cities in the south to protest segregation on buses, which had been banned by the courts but were still used throughout the southern states to discriminate against blacks. .

The ever-hopeful “Freedom Riders,” as they were called, did not expect the violence that met them in the South, or the lack of protection from the police or local courts. That spring and summer, hundreds of them were beaten and imprisoned. Their story is told again, with great force, in a rousing play. freedom rider at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, housed at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, which opened on Saturday (through June 26).

The Freedom Riders are a colorful part of American history. In 1946, the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation on interstate bus travel. In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled in Boynton v. Virginia that the bus segregation ban also applies to terminals, lounges, waiting rooms, lobbies, ticket counters, and any other travel-related locations. A year later, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation decided to test the ordinances by arranging a bus ride south. They recruited a group of black and white youths who boarded buses in Washington, D.C. and headed to the deepest place they could find south, to the city of New Orleans. Along the way, the white drivers used the buses for the blacks, and the blacks used the buses for the whites. They tried to integrate restaurants. Found problems, there are many. In one of the most horrific incidents, a bus in Anniston, Alabama was blown up and several riders were hospitalized. In Montgomery, Alabama, riders were brutally beaten by a white mob. In all the cities they visited, police protection was weak.

Finally, the National Guard was called in to protect all freedom fighters, but despite this, many were still arrested and imprisoned.

All this is considered freedom rider, designed and written by Ricardo Hahn, Kathleen McGee-Anderson, Murray Horwitz, Nathan Louis Jackson and Nikkole Salter. They did an excellent job of giving the play a tight timeline. Remember, the history of the civil rights movement is vast and vast. Here, the writers started just as the bus rides started and ended them at the end of the first ones. In this space and time, they told their story well. They also did not preach to the public and did not take any liberties with history. Their story here is very accurate.

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This is not the game I was expecting. I was expecting a drama about the great people in this story – people like Martin Luther King Jr., Jack and Bobby Kennedy. I was expecting a story about riots, mass beatings and street violence. I was expecting a big, big story.

No, it’s not. Oh, big people are mentioned and violence is noted, quite dramatic (especially the firebomb bus bombing), but it’s a small play. This is the personal story of freedom fighters and, in many scenes, their parents. Why did these young people get into these buses and stay in them after the violence started? How did their parents feel about the stubbornness (and courage) of their children? There is a great scene where several passengers call their moms on Mother’s Day and talk about the bus ride. You can see the worry on their parents’ faces and hear it in their voices. All those little stories of riders stitched together give this piece its power. I’m just as worried about my son – every day – as they are. All this is revealed in the play, and you understand that their story is our story as well.

There are wonderful stories, such as the white Joan who leaves her black boyfriend to join the ride and yearns for him as much as she does for integration on the bus. There is Phil, a Jewish boy at Wittenberg College, who worries that he will miss his final exams and get bad grades if the search for American freedom drags on. There is a tall and strong Carl, an African American who picks up a police officer in a restaurant and gets beaten for it, and then returns to the bus.

The play has a few flaws. Just over two and a half hours is a little long. The writers may cut things. The play also drags on a bit in the middle of the first act. More information about the Freedom Riders in the national media is needed. A major factor in Freedom Riders’ success has been press coverage. The trip south on May 14 ran into serious problems when a bus to Anniston caught fire. Press coverage of burning bus – Hundreds of newspaper photos added to the riot that took place at the bus station in Birmingham, Alabama and the media coverage of it created a lot of negative press against white segregationists in the South. The June 1, 1961 cover photo of Freedom Riders on the cover of Time magazine did more. White journalist Howard K. Smith was in Birmingham and reported on the violence of rear riders there on the CBS radio network, calling whites “thugs” and reporting how a dozen whites beat a black man, smashing his face into “bloody pulp”. (parts of Smith’s reporting are in the play). Life The magazine made Freedom Riders the main story of the week.

As more bus trips were made and many more arrests were made, the Freedom Riders received extensive coverage in the national press, print, and television, which helped their cause dramatically.

The touching and inspiring story of the 1961 Freedom Riders.

Southern political leaders and the southern press were opposed to the freedom fighters, but national press coverage portrayed them more as righteous victims of segregation. The press coverage changed the nation’s mindset towards black activists.

Later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was quite successful in getting national press attention for his marches in the South, and this press coverage greatly helped the civil rights movement. The play needs more of this. The black Baltimore newspaper report on the bus trips is discussed, but not the mainstream newspaper coverage.

However, this is just a tiny criticism.

Director Ricardo Hahn did an excellent job of making sure the play progressed at a good pace and maximized the impact of its story. He gets great work from actors Amy Bodnar, Kelsey Ann Brown, Dan Cooney, Ryan Foreman, Josh Lerner, Martin C. Lewis, Jameel A.S. Mangan, Cassandra Ogbozor, Mattilyn Rochester Kravitz, Alex Scoloveno, Debra Walton, and Alex Young.

The touching and inspiring story of the 1961 Freedom Riders.

Beowulf Borrit and Katherine Freer created a marvelous prison-like video screen showing real black-and-white footage of riders’ buses and numerous protests. Myrna Collie Lee did a good job on costume design, as did Victor En Tu Tan on lighting.

freedom rider it is a broad, powerful story about a critical moment in the history of the United States. Has America advanced racially since 1961? Yes, it has. The Americans have made great strides forward, but there is still a long way to go. Will we get there? We will, but it will take time. After all, it’s been sixty years since the Freedom Riders. It’s been a long time and we still have nagging racial issues.

However, the Freedom Riders live on in history and in us,

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Speaking of their legacy and how it relates to life in America today, the most poignant moment in the play is the very last moment, when suddenly, without any warning, huge letters cover the entire back of the stage.

Then the play ends. But the story, of course, is not.

Bruce Chadwick was a writer and critic for the New York Daily News for 23 years. He later worked as an art and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national weekly online magazine. Chadwick holds a PhD in history and cultural studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on US history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a professor of history at the University of New Jersey City.

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