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Birmingham Southern theater class brings historic community’s history to the stage

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Le'Darrion Gilchrist begins to block a scene on the stage. Birmingham Southern students have written and will produce a play based on interviews they conducted with Smithfield neighborhood residents. (The Birmingham Times / Frank Couch )
By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times

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Birmingham Southern College students are getting to know their Smithfield neighbors in a different way: with theater.

Students in Alan Litsey’s theater class are participating in a Call to Action Project, a hands-on exploration of the art of storytelling with a focus on docudrama.

The service-learning course partners with the Smithfield Community Action Team. “We’re creating a docudrama based on interviews with our neighbors who lived in College Hills,” said Litsey.

Interviewees include Smithfield residents Kamau Afrika, who is also an alumnus of BSC; Barbara Shores, daughter of Civil Rights attorney Arthur Shores; William Blanding; Adrienne Reynolds; Patricia Walker-Terry; Houston Brown and Madelyn Coar.

The class is split between writers and editors, and directors and actors.

Erin Huttula, 18, is a freshman from Huntsville and one of the writers.  “I’m really enjoying this,” Huttula said. “It’s a good opportunity to get into different subjects at one time.”

The semester-long project required that all students to be involved. They had to conduct interviews with the residents, write a story based on the transcript of the interviews, direct and act out the script. They will present the production on May 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Underground Theater on BSC’s campus.

Huttula interviewed Smithfield residents Patricia Walker Terry and her brother Kamau Afrika. She learned a lot about the community.

Huttula said Terry gave her account of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and other facts about growing up in the historic community.

“She talked about when she realized she had prejudices against her and what her childhood was like when she started realizing there were prejudices,” Huttula said.

Huttula also learned about the damage the bombings caused in the neighborhood. Known as “Dynamite Hill,” Smithfield endured a series of bombings to intimidate African Americans moving into the community.

“It used to be a really prosperous area and children would play outside together,” Huttula said. “After all the bombings happened, everyone was really protective of their families and they kind of lost that sense of community.”

Being interviewed was also education for Afrika, who was raised in the area.

“Most of the kids, white [students], come from middle class backgrounds, from Georgia, Florida, rural areas,” he said. “They were intrigued by what they heard.”

Afrika said Smithfield was a middle-class community for black families, and it thrived before integration. “The general population did not support black businesses and black professionals,” he said. “Black folks who had only [their own to support] created a huge black middle class. When integration came out they stopped supporting our own. When I say integration destroyed the black community it really did.”

Afrika, who graduated from BSC 1985, said the partnership with his alma mater is “significant.”

“The documentation of the historic things that took place will help us get on the (National Register of Historic Places).”

Getting into character

Three actors will be on stage to represent the Smithfield neighborhood.

Anthony Waller, Charity Furr and Jud Blount.

Waller, a 21-year-old junior, will play all of the male roles. Furr, 21, junior will play all of the female roles and Blount, 20, freshman will narrate.

The actors will read from the interviews as if in real time with costume, make up and set changes.  The script is based on the questions they asked the interviewees and will cover Smithfield’s past, current and what the future holds.

“The set changes as we talk about the time periods,” Blount said.

As far as switching between characters, Furr said it won’t be difficult.

“We’ll each have something, like a prop or something, to distinguish the difference between characters,” she said.

Capturing the subjects’ mannerisms during the interview is also critical, Furr said.

“I picked up on the physical, the way they carried themselves,” she said.  “I sat in the interview with Barbara Shores and Madeline Coar, and Madeline always talked with her hands crossed, so when I play her I talk with my hands crossed. Some people were more outgoing and some were a bit more reserved. So the interviews helped get character development going.”

Waller said a couple of his interviews were phone interviews, which left a lot to the imagination. “I imagined that one of them was sitting in a rocking chair while talking to us,” he said. “So I’m trying to convey that on stage.”

When she heard about the project, Furr said she thought it would be a good way to present social issues.

Blount and Waller are not theater majors and said they found their roles challenging.

“I kind of wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” Waller said. “I’ve never done acting in front of a live audience before, so I wanted to push myself to do something different.”

The play will show how important community was to the people who lived there and the impact of history including the Sixteenth Street Church bombing.

“Hearing those stories intertwine is really interesting,” Waller said. “It’s all of this history here 10 minutes down the road and they never really think about it. All of the people are alive and able to tell the things that we only learn about.”