The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 is a historical tragedy that some know all too well. But for others, not so much. Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11) became angels of the Civil Rights movement when their lives were snuffed out by a bomb that tore the collective hearts of black America into pieces.
A collaborative production between COCA and The Black Rep will introduce the stain on American history to a broader audience when “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” opens this weekend in the newly opened Staenberg Performance Lab at COCA. The show will continue through October 27.
“Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” is Jennifer Wintzer’s first start-to-finish production as COCA’s artistic director of Theatre. She assumed the position in April and one of her first priorities was to engage with The Black Rep around their Teen Tech program. The result was the St. Louis Theatrical Workforce Collaborative – an initiative between COCA, The Black Rep and The Boys and Girls Club’s Teen Empowerment Center in Ferguson to develop new pathways for young people to work on the technical and design side of theatre.
Ron Himes, founder and producing director of The Black Rep suggested that they start the partnership with a co-production that will allow an opportunity for the students to jump right in at the top of the season. “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” was the production they agreed upon.
“It’s been enlightening for me because I’ve been able to work with Ron Himes at The Black Rep,” Wintzer said. “He is a leader in American theater so to be able to partner with him and such an established institution and working on a piece like this written by Christina Ham has been a learning experience for me as an artistic director. And it’s also been pretty exciting to see our young people – who are already quite talented in terms of being skilled performers – so committed to telling such a powerful story.”
It was a humbling and magical experience for director Jacqueline Thompson, who – along with assistant director Alicia Like and musical director Trevon Griffith – help young people tell the story of these four girls and how their lives, and deaths, forever changed a nation.
“This show humanizes them,” Thompson said. “We hear about the four little girls. Some know their names, but most don’t. Addie Mae was into sports, she loved baseball. Denise wanted to be a doctor.
The show makes their lives personal for all these little girls on stage responsible for lifting up their memories.”
Twenty girls ranging in age from 8-17 are among the stars of this production.
“They do a fantastic job of showing how bright their lights were – and how it could have been any of us,” Thompson said. “And now with the racial climate of 2019, it could still be any of us. Yes, this took place in 1963, but it could very well happen today or tomorrow.”
Wintzer has been inspired by the hard work of the young actors and the young technical staff and their commitment to telling the story with grace and honor and a standard of excellence.
“They are so committed to making art,” Wintzer said of the performers and technical artists. “That has been a great learning experience for me in my new role. Young people have the power. Theater is a collaborative art form and to get young people to understand that there are multiple perspectives, multiple talents and multiple abilities that help to tell the story is essential to me. I hope the audience is also profoundly inspired when they see that that our young people have the ability, the intelligence and the heart to tell such an important story.”
Thompson is proud of how the entire team has handled the weight and responsibility of “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” and feels that it is in a sense a reincarnation of the black girl magic that was snuffed out by a racial terrorism.
“I want the young black girls coming up who were a part of this production and see this production – including myself – to be all the things that these four girls could not have been,” Thompson said. “
These girls can do that in their honor of what those four girls could not be and can explore all of the possibilities that were taken from them.”
Wintzer says the play has the capacity to touch everyone who sees it.
“I hope that we have a multigenerational audience – an audience of adults and young people from all backgrounds – come watch young people perform and tell an important story that is a part of our history,” Wintzer said. “And that they have an understanding that young people are really the voice of our future.
We must look back as we look forward and recognize both the tragedy of our history and the promise of tomorrow and we have to acknowledge the tragedies of the past so that we don’t repeat them.”
The Black Rep and COCA’s presentation of “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” will play October 18-20 and October 25-27 at Staenberg Performance Lab, 524 Trinity Ave. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.cocastl.org or call (314) 561-4877.