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Community unites to tell Rosa Parks' hidden story

DEFIANT: Rosa Parks, the elder, as played by Sharon Jackson

WITH THE recent 60th anniversary of popular civil rights legend Rosa Parks being arrested for refusing to move from her seat on an Alabama bus in Montgomery, a new play about her experience has united a Birmingham community as never before.

A group made up of amateur actors and some who have never stepped on stage before have worked together for months to stage a remarkable play of a professional standard – with no funding at all.

Rosa Parks: The Hidden Story searches behind Rosa’s quiet defiance to explain how she became the woman who challenged the segregation laws in court that led to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott.

The community production was the brainchild of producer Audrey Hayles-Parkes, of Inspiring a New Generation, who has earned a reputation for staging Martin Luther-King Jnr memorial events in Birmingham every January.

Hayles-Parkes explained: “This year, with the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks just over two weeks ago, I decided back in the summer that we should mark date this properly in Birmingham,” explained Audrey, who is now busy preparing for the city’s next celebration of Martin Luther King Jnr at Birmingham Town Hall on January 17th.

“I have always been fascinated by the relationship of Rosa Parks and Dr King and felt it was worth putting together a play to honour this.

“It’s been an incredible experience for all of us because we’ve been going through four-hourly rehearsals twice a week since September and we did all this with not one penny!

“It’s a testament to the dedication of the cast and all the help we’ve received along the way from professionals who were prepared to give their time and expertise for free to the ACE Dance Academy who offered us their performance space.”

The two-night play was staged at the ACE Dance and Music base in Digbeth, a recognised leader in contemporary African and Caribbean dance.

Notable names who stepped forward to help included Birmingham-born actor Lorna Laidlaw, who plays receptionist Winifred Tembe in the popular BBC1 soap Doctors.

“Having Lorna as our director was brilliant – and we had the backing of so many other talented people,” added Audrey.

HISTORIC JOURNEY: Rosa Parks the younger on the bus, played by Shireen Powell

These included Yorkshire-born scriptwriter Jude Freeman, who made the play her first project in the West Midlands.
She told The Voice: “What we wanted to get across in the play was that Rosa Parks was not some tired out old lady who decided to resist the bus city’s segregation law on 1st December 1955 one day after work.

“She was a prominent activist, who became one of the first women to join the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

“Obviously, I have used some artistic licence, but I wanted to portray the quiet defiance she showed that led her to become the mother of the civil rights movement.”

For the 21-strong cast, some found the experience of putting the play together as dramatic as the production itself.

Sister Kush, who played activist Septima Clark, said: “This experience was priceless because we were producing something without a budget. We weren’t relying on the corporate media to tell our story – we controlled it.”

Drama student Shireen Powell, who played the young Rosa, said: “It’s been very empowering, but also quite difficult. We’ve all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions while putting the play together. We feel we have lived through what Rosa experienced all over again.”

Amateur actress Sharon Jackson, who played the older Rosa, said: “It’s been wonderful working with a cast of such different backgrounds and nationalities.”

Others such as David Lee, who works at NewStyle, Birmingham’s African Caribbean radio station, said: “I’d never been in a production before. It’s been an experience of a lifetime, but also soul-sapping as we relived what they all went through in Montgomery 60 years ago.”

David played Edgar Nixon, the former chair of the Alabama NAACP and leader of the nation’s first all-black labour union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Audric Tchouani, a financial economics graduate, managed to attend the rehearsals from London. Having been an actor for the past ten years, he played the dual roles of the judge and sheriff.

He said: “It was quite exhausting at times, but so educational too, explaining Rosa’s role that many people didn’t know about.”

Audrey added: “Since staging the play, several venues have come forward saying they would like to host future productions. We are also planning to perform an extract during our next Martin Luther King 2016 event at Birmingham Town Hall next month.”

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