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Open the Door, Virginia!
by Emily Pritchard Cary

     How many readers attended school in Virginia prior to 1954? 

     A half-century ago, public schools throughout the South were segregated in what local politicians proudly hailed as “separate, but equal,” facilities.

     In most communities, white children were educated from elementary through high school in large, bright buildings equipped with ample desks, books, and other essential classroom materials. Despite political propaganda, these schools were visibly superior to the “colored” schools that served the non-white residents. 
The latter were often small, crowded, and ill-equipped. The “colored” teachers received lower salaries than their white counterparts and frequently doubled as custodians, bus drivers, and cooks for their charges. Just as the teachers worked hard for their meager paychecks, so did their students put forth extraordinary physical effort. It was not uncommon for children living in remote areas to endure great inconvenience and travel many dusty miles daily on an antiquated bus, even by foot. But still they came, thirsting for the same quality of education enjoyed by their white peers.

     The “separate, but equal,” travesty may have continued to this day, had it not come to a head in Virginia’s Prince Edward County during the 1951 school term. A few students attending the “colored” schools in that county decided that separate was not equal. Convinced that they deserved the right to attend the very same schools as the white students, they did the unthinkable to prove their point. They went on strike!

     Three years later, the fruits of their courage were realized in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. As a result, schools throughout Virginia and all Southern states became integrated. The goals today’s students strive to reach are limited only by their dedication, not by the quality of instruction.

     To commemorate the role Virginia students played in the momentous ruling, George Mason University’s Theater of the First Amendment has commissioned “Open the Door, Virginia!” This musical theater event was created by award-winning choreographer Dianne McIntyre and composer Olu Dara. The world premiere opens in GMU’s Harris Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia on January 12 and runs through February 6. Already it has received additional grants for regional theater performances later in the year.

     Few people outside the students who initiated the strike remember what happened a half-century ago in Farmville, the largest town in Prince Edward County, and the surrounding community. Until now, they have been reticent to speak about their involvement in a cause that took the United States in a new direction and forever changed this nation’s educational policies. 

     Armed with the GMU commission and the university’s commitment to celebrating this extraordinary moment in Virginia’s history, McIntyre began to gather material for her project by conducting interviews with those former students, now in their late sixties.

     “I wanted to find out what it was like living there and taking an unpopular stand,” she says, speaking between rehearsals in Fairfax. “Oliver Hill, one of the Brown vs. Board of Education lawyers, gave me my first perspective of the young people living in those communities.  I wanted to know how many of them, if any, continued working for desegregation of the schools and how that involvement affected their lives.

     “These students were exceptional because they not only were inspired to make a change, but they actually took it upon themselves to initiate the action. When I first went to Farmville and spoke with those who still live nearby, they told me that many of their contemporaries know nothing about Prince Edward County’s role in desegregation.  Even more surprising, some of their children are unaware of their parents’ actions. 

     “Remember, things were very delicate during that time in history. Because those young people were afraid of what might happen to them, most have been unwilling to share their memories with the world.  Consequently, very few Americans knew the origin of the movement until it was revisited in a recent CBS ‘60 Minutes’ show.

     “I was fortunate to interview Mr. John Stokes, an original member of the strike committee, who is now a consultant.  He shared with me his memories of the energy those young people felt that allowed them to accomplish more than could be conveyed in words or a book.”

     Once McIntyre completed the interviews, she and Dara began creating what she calls a “choreo-drama,” a format for telling a story through music, dance, and the spoken word. The two artists have collaborated numerous times beginning with dance concerts they presented many years ago in New York. 

     Through Sounds in Motion, the dance company she founded in the early 1970s, McIntyre has become known for productions incorporating jazz dance, modern dance, and African American social dance. Her awards include an Emmy nomination for the HBO production of “Miss Evers’ Boys,” and a 1992 Helen Hayes Award for “In Living Colors” featuring Dara’s music. McIntyre and Dara later worked together at GMU in “Blues Rooms,” another Theater of the First Amendment production staged in 1998. 

     In all of his compositions, Dara utilizes blues, jazz, funk, and African themes. His original musical melodrama, “From Natchez to New York,” was heard on NPR (National Public Radio) and was presented live at the Smithsonian.  A multi-instrumentalist, he has been heard on 70 albums, including his own work, “Neighborhoods” released in 2001, and most recently with his son, hip-hop artist Nas. As the composer and musical director of this project, Dara has created a unique palette of sound to accompany McIntyre’s dance and verbal scripts.

     “There’s a great deal of variety in his music,” McIntyre says. “Some of the dances become like the poetry of words in motion as one person speaks and one or more dancers move to the music. One dance is like a routine some young college or high school students would make up. In another, a woman goes back in time as she plays on a guitar.

     “Olu’s unique contributions to this production include vocalizations for the actors. By that, I mean that when several are sharing a story at the same time, the syllables they speak sound like they are coming from an ancient culture. All but one of our actors graduated from Howard University. They had a general knowledge of Brown Vs. Board of Education, but learning the details knocked them out, as it will everyone who sees this show and discovers what those young students did for society.”

     McIntyre is grateful for the opportunity to share this key moment in history with Virginia audiences. During the show’s run in Fairfax, she and the cast will give a number of free performances for schools throughout Virginia to show youngsters how education has changed since their grandparents attended Virginia schools. More importantly, they will have proof that courage and belief in an important cause can alter the course of history.
George Mason University’s Center for the Arts presents the world premiere of “Open the Door, Virginia!” by Dianne McIntyre and Olu Dara in the Harris Theater, Fairfax, Virginia, from January 12 through February 6. Shows are Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 & 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. (2 p.m. on February 6). Tickets are $25 by phone at (703) 218-6500, or on line atwww.tickets.com

© 2005 Emily Pritchard Cary. All Rights Reserved. Contact Emily Cary at 
 


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