May, 1961. The American south. Segregation has been ruled unconstitutional, but southern states ignore the legislation and the federal government does nothing to enforce it. Activists of all ages and races, sponsored by civil rights organizations, challenge this non-enforcement on public transport and customer services by sending groups of riders, black and white, on interstate bus journeys from Washington DC to New Orleans.
They never get to New Orleans. Over the next several months, in Alabama and Mississippi one bus after another is brutally attacked. The activists, who believe in passive protest, are terribly injured and eventually arrested. President Kennedy, embarrassed by their actions on an international level, urges them to stop but they continue to fight for equality. Rise Up by Lisa Evans uses spoken word, storytelling and multi-rolling to inspire young people to fight for equality in their everyday lives and pay homage to these brave people fighting for justice. A cast of four actor-storytellers with boundless energy plays all the characters with minimal set and props, inciting enthusiasm from both adults and young people alike.
Three metal panels on wheels are the old silver Greyhound buses. A few matching metal stools cleverly create bus seats, jail cells, shop counters and so on. Actors Emma Dennis-Edwards, Sam Kacher, Kimisha Lewis and Edward Nkom set the scenes with an array of accents and physicalities under their belts, plus a few hats and small props to help. The audience consisting mostly of children from the local girls’ school immediately warm to them, both during the production and the post-show “revolution”.
The script is narration-heavy, perhaps too much so, but these monologues feature sections of poetry delivered with a hint of spoken word, but not so much so that the performance style changes and does a disservice to production style continuity. Though more showing than telling would have been welcome, the incidents described are quite graphic and not appropriate to vividly show to school children. This isn’t a particularly visual show, so the students’ attention is a testament to the script and performers’ strength.
Theatre for young people continues to develop in leaps and bounds, creating rich stories and detailed characterization that can appeal to all ages. Rise Up is an example of this, telling a clear story that although set in another era and country, manages to relate to the lives of contemporary young people in Britain feeling the effects of inequality. The staging is simple as is the design, but this serves to focus the audience’s attention on Evans’ excellent script.
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