Keith Cromwell, executive director of the Red Mountain Theatre Company (RMTC) in downtown Birmingham, makes it clear—he wants people to get an idea of what others who are not like them go through.
“As a person, I’m looking to continually explore my compassion, my ability to walk in someone else’s shoes and better understand their place,” he said. “When watching someone walk through something of great challenge, when watching mistreatment and judgment, hopefully, we can stop and … take it easy on each other.”
The inaugural Human Rights Works New Works Festival, hosted by the RMTC from March 15 to 18, is designed to do just that, said Cromwell.
It is a “conversation and a celebration of that which unites us all—our humanity,” he said.
The festival will present original stage-show works about human rights issues, including race, gender, special needs, and religion. It will feature a full production of the headline show “Alabama Story” and staged readings of “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette,” “Everything That’s Beautiful,” “Sam’s Room,” and “Mother Emanuel.” It also will include panel discussions and workshops, as well as talkbacks, during which the audience can have a discussion with the writers and actors.
Walking in New Snow
Cromwell, who has been at the helm of the RMTC since 2004, has more than 25 years of directing and performing experience. New works are “like walking in new snow; [there’s] the freshness and the beauty of that new thing,” he said. “When I got [to the RMTC] and began producing, I thought I’d like to begin creating and supporting new things, but it’s a tricky thing … if the audience isn’t familiar with it.”
Cromwell said he is proud of the works selected for the event. For example, the festival will begin and end with the headline show, “Alabama Story,” based on a case about human rights violations and censorship in libraries that made it to the Alabama Supreme Court in 1959. This two-act play about a librarian who takes on segregationist state senators in the Jim Crow South when they try to ban a children’s book from Alabama public libraries is weaved together with the story of two childhood friends, one black and one white, who were separated by a traumatic incident that only one remembers.
“‘Alabama Story’ is historically accurate,” said Cromwell. “It’s about a book called ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding,’ in which a black rabbit and a white rabbit get married and all the woodland creatures celebrate, and the librarian who is thrown under the bus by a senator who said she supported integrated marriage in the 60s. [The librarian] said, ‘No. I’m just putting a children’s book on the shelf.’”
Cromwell said the story about the white librarian, “a very unlikely heroine, caused a major shift in consciousness in our state.”
Also part of the festival are four readings: “Mother Emanuel” is a dramatic interpretation of events at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, when nine members of the church, called “Mother Emanuel,” were murdered; “Everything That’s Beautiful” is about a transgender child and the challenges a family faces; “Sam’s Room” tells the story of a teenager with nonverbal special needs on his path to find a way to communicate; and “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette” is about a homeless drifter and a woman he encounters.
In the Magic City
Cromwell said he wanted the event in Birmingham.
“This is where I’ve been for 15 years. When I first moved to Birmingham, a lot of people asked why I moved here,” he said. “I’ve never seen more fertile soil to plant yourself in. If you want to be a person of change or make change, this is the place to be. So, I’m not interested in taking this idea somewhere else. I want everyone to come to Birmingham and experience the Birmingham that I know.
He also wants to reach as many people as possible.
“We want to shift the conversation to be broad-based,” he said. “Being a gay man in Birmingham, everything came down to black and white. People would often ask, ‘What about our Muslim friends or Jewish friends?’ There are greater issues at work than skin color.”
Cromwell described what he called “a shift in consciousness. Fifty years ago, if you said you were from here there was one [type of] reaction. … This year, with the new election, there’s a new reaction.”
“When I told one of the writers—Anushka, who wrote the music for “The Ballad of Klook and Vinette—I was from Birmingham, she said, ‘It would be so important to come there if you choose our work.’”
Another incentive is to get area residents involved, said Cromwell, who recalled attending the now-defunct City Stages music festival when he first moved to Birmingham.
“I used to love watching all these people all over the streets,” he said. “[Lately], I’ve watched as the Sidewalk Film Festival has grown and just watched our city just blossom in all these new ideas. Birmingham is reclaiming its rightful place as the epicenter where international consciousness shifted toward human rights.”
Cromell continued, “I’ve lived my entire life as an artist, and so often we have to prove our worth. With the challenges we’re facing in the days we’re living in now, we have to figure a new way out. I think the arts are going to be the way out.”