Selma ’65: Poetry combined with the brutality of reality

Selma ’65 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Selma Voting March. Based on true events, this solo piece explores the stories of white civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo and FBI informant Tommy Rowe. Rowe was among the Ku Klux Klan members who overtook and gunned down Liuzzo’s Oldsmobile in March 1965. Liuzzo, who witnessed racial hatred firsthand as a young girl, was targeted by the Klan while she drove African-American freedom fighters to safety following the historic Voting March.

The show is directed by Lane Richins and both roles will be played by local actress Tracie Merrill. Merrill said of being cast in SELMA ’65 was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.  “I have never taken on a one-person show before, and I anticipate this experience being one of the greatest acting challenges I’ve faced,” she said.

“It’s exciting to finally be starting rehearsal.  I’ve toyed a bit with what makes Viola and Tommy who they are through me, including vocal pitch and weight placement, but I know it will be in rehearsals where the real discovery can begin.

“I am guessing many people in the audience will be as surprised as I was to learn of the one white woman killed during the Civil Rights Movement and how not only the Ku Klux Klan, but the FBI, unintentionally played a part. My hat is off to playwright Catherine Filloux and her dramatic fiction that takes historical people and events, and bombards them with questions and possibilities.”

Richins said he was struck by the immediacy of the script. “Not only the immediate nature of the story being told, but the immediate nature of the way it is told,” he said.

“Here we have a play rooted in one of the most difficult periods of American history, but whose themes are also firmly planted in the America of today. Racial violence, abuse of power, outlying sects, government conspiracies, homeland terrorism…none of these are new ideas or acts. Just recurring ones.

“As is the concept of equal rights. The 14th Amendment, passed July 9, 1898, says, in part, ‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Fighting for them then. Fighting for them in ’65. Fighting for them now. You see it in Flint, Michigan. You see it in Sanford, Florida. In Burns, Oregon. In St. Louis. In Baltimore. In Chicago. You see it in Salt Lake City. And Viola Liuzzo certainly saw it in Selma, Alabama.

“The dramatic structure used by Filloux highlights the frantic insanity of the day. Cleverly, she has the actress in this one-woman biographical show play two ironically different parts: Viola Liuzzo, civil rights activist, and Tommy Rowe, FBI informant, KKK member, and murderer of Viola Liuzzo. It’s always a challenge playing real people…but particularly difficult given Filloux’ razor sharp transitions and quick-cut timing. I’m blessed to have an actress as capable, honest, and hard-working as Tracie Merrill playing these two roles. The shows rides on her shoulders, and she’s going to carry it with grace and stark vulnerability.”

About taking on the story, Filloux said on her blog she believes it was a necessary step towards preserving history in the minds of theatergoers and staying in-line with her dedication to activism. “As a playwright I focus predominately on human rights, exploring issues of genocide and other forms of state violence, its crimes and scars,” she wrote. “I always choose subject matter, which I personally feel most urgently about. In this case, it is the erosion of our civil rights. The long and often blood struggle to win the right to vote is obviously ongoing.

“’SELMA ’65’ brings a virtually unknown story in United States’ history to light,” adds Filloux. “In my story, I juxtapose the poetic with the brutal reality of violence and the individual moments of choice within the whirlwind of history.”

Filloux is Artist in Residence at La MaMa, and has been writing about human rights and social justice for more than twenty years. Her plays and libretti have been produced around the world, some of which were commissioned works for the Vienna State Opera House, Book Wings Iraq, Contemporary American Theater Festival, and the Houston Grand Opera. She was one of the playwrights of “Seven,” which Pygmalion produced in 2012.