The racial tensions and revolutionary spirit of the civil rights movement course through the entire hour of the Subversive Theatre Collective’s “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.” We hear stories of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the first black students at the University of Alabama. We see pictures from these pivotal events, as well as images of race riots and diner sit-ins, projected in the background. And we know about the Alabama church bombing that the title alludes to.
But turbulence and tragedy rarely find their way to the stage in Christina M. Ham’s cool-tempered play, which instead spotlights the girls killed in the attack: Denise McNair (played by Kajana Stover), Cynthia Wesley (Tashani Wiggins), Carole Robertson (Tamia Horton) and Addie Mae Collins (Diamond Turner). In history, those girls are defined by their deaths. This play, meanwhile, is invested in the lives they had, and the lives they never realized.
“They are so often grouped together as ‘those four black girls,’ ” said director Kelly Beuth in an interview after the show’s second night, on Thursday. The play continues through June 1 in the Manny Fried Playhouse. “Who are they? Putting a face to the violence hits so much closer to home. They’re not just four girls, they were four girls with aspirations and dreams.”
“Four Little Girls” prioritizes those dreams over the nightmare that extinguished them. In a loose narrative strung through a cappella songs of unity and longing – “Oh, Freedom,” “A Change is Gonna Come” – we see the short lives that each girl struggled to enjoy. On a flat and unadorned stage, they play catch, sing in church, talk about crushes, fret about their school’s spring recital and sip tea with friends while mocking the fancy lifestyles they see only from a distance. Denise wants to be a pediatrician and hates doing homework before she can watch TV. Cynthia studies math and dreams of numbers, but also wants to be a novelist who dedicates her works to her future husband and children. These stories are sorrowful precisely because they are so sweet, simple and mundane. They capture the spark of youth, seemingly invincible to America’s darker truths.
Stover, Wiggins, Horton and Turner enliven the girls with poise and precision, demonstrating the hard-won maturity that grows from a persecuted childhood. They are joined by an ensemble of classmates from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts (BAVPA), who form the us versus them environment of 1963 Birmingham. The white students are constant symbols of casual hatred, tossing racial slurs and flaunting the everyday privileges that the girls can only dream about. The black students stand in for the family members, friends and mentors who try to comfort the girls, encourage their ambitions and keep the prospects of violence and oppression at bay. “Four Little Girls” keeps a small-scale spirit of innocence, even as we’re reminded of the greater struggles around and beyond Birmingham. We know what happens to these girls, but the play leaves us wondering what might have been.
Director Beuth, who teaches drama at the BAVPA, was drawn to that loss of innocence. “After the bombing, everyone took a step back and was like, ‘Wow, we’re killing children now,’ ” she said. For the civil rights movement, “it was a defining moment. Lots of people woke up, took notice and said, ‘What are we doing?’ ” She chose the play for the third annual Subversive Youth Program – the Subversive Theatre’s series of challenging or controversial works for young performers – to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing: “This is the right year to do it. It’s a great history lesson.”
Beuth first approached the play as a history lesson, asking the performers – all approaching or in their early teens – to research and write about the bombing before the production. Through those assignments, Beuth saw how this harsh “history lesson” still reverberates in a new generation. The students “had heard about the bombing, but they didn’t really know about it,” she said. “Then they looked into it and they all said, ‘Wow – these kids were my age.’ ”