Jacqui Blue as Mamie Till Bradley.
Nation In Crisis
Written & directed by Keith McGill
Performed by Jacqui Blue
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
History may not be elastic but our understanding of it always is. And for the myriad of stories that we continue to discover, the essential context is where they are placed in relation to certain iconic moments. For the history of Black Americans, this process of discovery gains speed with milestones occurring since World War II: the actions of the Tuskegee Airmen during that war, the desegregation of Little Rock High School in 1954, the murder of Emmett Till the following year, the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins in 1960, The 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1964 Voting Rights Act, and the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. & Malcolm X.
Keith McGill’s Nation In Crisis began as an outreach program cataloging these moments for classrooms, which is reflected in the didactic tone, but he has here adapted it through the casting of Jacqui Blue, shaping the piece to her strengths in ways that expand the emotional range while also reinforcing the bedrock concept. Where a male performer would once play Emmett Till’s uncle, Blue now plays his mother, Mamie Till Bradley. which is much more to the point. Till’s mother famously refused a closed casket for her son’s horribly disfigured corpse so all could bear witness.
But gender is otherwise irrelevant in this casting, as Blue is asked to occupy the space of a WWII fighter pilot, one of the African American “Redtails” who fought for the opportunity and then distinguished themselves in their service, only to be met with indignities such as being accused of impersonating an officer by racist military officials back in the states.
She also enacts a white high school student in Little Rock whose account of the desegregation displays at least a small shift in tolerance and acceptance and a male white construction worker who rides the bus with Rosa Parks in Montgomery. McGill is wise to realize that sometimes the most instructive point of view is not that of the hero.
Blue moves through these characters with ease, never impersonating but simply finding their voice. In what might arguably be the greatest challenge, she shifts back and forth between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, illuminating the contrasting philosophies with a carefully judged change in vocal cadence, and the help of the ubiquitous gray suit that has come to be emblematic of the 1960s. As an added bonus, McGill gives Blue the opportunity to use her rich voice to introduce “We Shall Overcome”, and most powerfully, “Strange Fruit” as a coda to Mamie Till Bradley’s scene.
That the piece ends with that debate makes sense. The assassinations of the two men mark the end of the Civil Rights Movement as the history books record it, but we bear witness NOW to the reality that the struggle for equality, justice, and representation is never-ending and cannot be commodified so tidily into books, movies, and television shows. Complacency is the enemy of true change, and if Nation In Crisis is unabashedly educational, it remains an important and essential lesson that we all MUST keep learning over and over again.
Nation In Crisis
January 16, 2021 @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm
February 6, 2021 @ 2:00pm & 7:00pm
Commonwealth Theatre Center
Tickets: $10 per screen
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.