Last year, Monumental Theatre presented Act 1 of “Montgomery,” a new musical about Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, civil rights attorney Fred Gray, and the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Claudette, who is alive today and retired in Brooklyn, NY, was a 15-year-old girl who refused to give up a seat to a white lady on the bus. The Montgomery bus rules stated that the first 10 rows were for white folks, but if the bus was crowded, then the whites had the right to displace minority passengers from the other seats. Colvin refused to get up, citing a Constitutional right. She paid dearly in many ways for that courage.
This is a glorious musical—you feel it from the words, from the tunes, and from the fervent voices that brought it all to life.
Act 1 ends with Colvin being found guilty of disturbing the peace, battering and assaulting a police officer, and violating the segregation laws and fined $12.00. She was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions. She was urged to go ahead and plead guilty, even though this would make her a “convict.” She pled not guilty, Fred Gray represented her and lost.
She was also urged to let Rosa Parks, the secretary for the local NAACP chapter, become the test case—Rosa was lighter complexioned, middle-class, an adult, had a respectable job, was quiet and soft-spoken.
In Act 2, which was premiered this weekend, history comes calling again for Claudette Colvin. Even though she had received little support from the community, including the NAACP, before, she stood up for civil rights by agreeing to become a plaintiff in the first federal court case filed by Gray in 1956 to challenge bus segregation in the city. Rosa Parks was not a part of the case—the civil rights leaders did not want it to become the “Rosa Parks show.” Colvin testified before a three-judge panel in United States district court. In June of that year, the judges found for the plaintiffs. Appealed by the state, the Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s ruling in 1956.
Yet both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin had to leave Montgomery to find a future—Parks to Detroit and Colvin to New York.
And yet also, history remembers Rosa Parks, but not Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old brainy young girl who had a strong sense of right and wrong and a fire for justice.
It is thanks to the music, book and lyrics by Britt Bonney, the direction by Kevin McAllister (well-known to audiences in the DMV) and the music direction by Cedric D. Lyles, that a pretty substantial audience got to experience the long-awaited Act 2 in the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center.
This is a glorious musical—you feel it from the words, from the tunes, and from the fervent voices that brought it all to life. It was hard to believe that the full cast had only met twice prior to Saturday’s presentation to run through the entire show; it was that polished, and that believable. They drew us into the world of 1950 segregated South and didn’t let go until they released us on a skein of hope.
One of the beauties of this new musical is that it brings to life so vividly the many forces arrayed against Claudette, and African Americans in general. Too many of the incidents that have found their way into the songs are true; this is incandescently brought to life in “Roll On” in the first act.
Halo Wheeler played Claudette Colvin—she was fierce and smart and so very vulnerable. Rosa Parks is played by an elegant Shayla Lowe; Fred Gray by Ricardo Blagrove (you can actually see him grow up as a lawyer in the show); and Jo Ann Robinson, an organizer who is not to be trifled with, and blessed with a deeply melodic voice, by Kelli Blackwell.
Claudette’s parents, Mary Ann and Q.P. are played by Tomi Nelson (she has a voice that draws deep in its power) and Wendel Jordan (he may be poor but he’s no fool).
Alex De Bard (Margaret Johnson, a friend of Claudette); Ian Anthony Coleman (E.D. Nixon); Brent Stone (Mayor Gayle); Brice Guerriere (Office Ward and others); and Meg Bunn and Ashley K. Nicholas round out the ensemble.
Cedric D. Lyles was on keyboard (as well as music direction) and Jason Wilson (bass), Connor Holdridge (guitar) and Tarek Mohamed (drums) provided the live music. It is to everyone’s credit that the music was so well modulated that it never overpowered the voices or was secondary to them.
Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens next, and to see a fully-staged production. This is a very real musical—based on a forgotten person who helped launch an era which is still being resisted today in so many ways. And it’s gloriously, messily human. But this weekend, those voices bringing this to life hand angels weeping in awe.
Show Advisory: Some adult language; some racially-charged language
Running Time: 120 minutes plus an intermission.
The 18th annual series ran through August 30 through September 2. For more information, click here.