On Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery, Ala., a white activist and her passenger, a 19-year-old black man, were driving civil-rights marchers to safety.
That was the plan, anyway, on the evening of March 25, 1965. Instead, the Oldsmobile driven by Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother of five, was overtaken by a red and white Impala and then she was gunned down by a car full of Ku Klux Klan members, including Tommy Rowe, who was later learned to be an FBI informant. Her passenger, Leroy Moton, was covered in Liuzzo’s blood, only surviving because he pretended to be dead.
The converging thoughts of Liuzzo and Rowe — whom playwright Catherine Filloux considers “two lost souls of the South” — haunt her one-woman play “Selma ’65.”
Filloux is a resident playwright at off-off-Broadway’s renowned La MaMa Theatre, where “Selma ’65” debuted in 2014, before continuing on to play at various university campuses. Now the playwright will come to Salt Lake City for Pygmalion Productions’ regional premiere, which runs March 4-19 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre.
The form of a one-person play invites the audience to become a scene partner. “You have to have a continuous engagement with your audience,” says Filloux, who weaves together stories that reveal the striking commonalities between an unlikely pair.
Besides crossing gender lines, Utah-based actor Tracie Merrill is portraying both the victim and a witness, even likely accomplice, to her killing. “Of course, we’ll never know, but it’s my belief [Rowe] was not involved in the shooting, but he witnessed it,” Filloux says.
Those razor-quick transformations are what the actor considers the “beautiful challenge” of the role. “I haven’t ever had to jump between two people in this way before,” Merrill says. “I’m having to rely on posture and stance as a trigger point.”
Merrill says she is relying on changing the width of her stance and the bend in her knees as a way to instruct the rest of her body to follow. She stands more erect when she’s Viola, and she slouches when she becomes Tommy. She reminds herself to raise the register of her voice a bit for Viola, and speaks in lower tones, and with a Southern drawl, as Tommy.
(Curiously, in 1975 Rowe testified in front of a Senate committee wearing a hood, similar to those worn by Klansmen, saying he was protecting his identity as part of the Witness Protection Program.)
Director Lane Richins praises Merill’s willingness to experiment in rehearsal. “She knows how to live in her body, not just as Tracie Merrill,” the director says. “I’ve seen it in countless shows. She doesn’t know falseness. She doesn’t know timidity, either.”
Filloux’s unusual dramatic structure highlights the frantic insanity of the day. Richins says the script is jarring in its content, and something like a poetic fever dream in its telling.
“In reading the play, it’s so clear that the adage of history repeating itself is not just lip service,” says the director, who developed a friendship with the playwright when he worked with her and other female playwrights while directing Pygmalion’s docu-drama “Seven” in 2012.
“Selma ’65” aims to instill hope and meaning, even as it pushes the audience to reconsider our country’s ongoing racial divides. “There’s an immediacy in the way it makes you feel and the way it’s told,” the director says, adding that Merrill’s role is to be a shepherd between the play’s events and the audience. “It’s an experience we’re all sharing, as opposed to a performance we’re watching.”
Part of what Liuzzo explains to the audience is why she is making a trail of rocks. She is lost, metaphorically, Filloux says, and the question of the play is how theatergoers will find her — and what they will do with that discovery.