Commonwealth Theatre Center in Louisville will present a virtual show Saturday that focuses on key moments from the Civil Rights era and Black American history.
“Nation in Crisis” is a one-person show, in which the actor plays different eight people who witnessed major moments in history.
It covers the establishment of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of Black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps; the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, sparked by Rosa Parks’ arrest in 1955; the murder of Emmett Till; the Voting Rights Act; the Little Rock Nine; the Greensboro Sit-ins; as well as speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Playwright Keith McGill wrote the work about 15 years ago and, until recently, he performed it in local schools as an educational outreach production.
“So it wasn’t about these historical people who are like statues or in books or movies, they’re people in a moment… These people didn’t know they were making history until later,” McGill said. “And so then it gives students a perspective of history is not something that happened, history is happening all the time.”
A virtual iteration of the play, filmed last fall, debuted in January and was the first public performance of the show. Saturday’s shows are also open to the general public.
In late 2019, actor and singer-songwriter Jacqui Blue stepped into the work as McGill moved to a more behind-the-scenes role. McGill wanted the show to live on, but didn’t feel like he should be the one to perform it anymore.
Blue, who had seen it before, said she was drawn to the idea of “being able to portray these characters.”
“To teach kids about civil rights and about Black history, and to demonstrate some of the things that occurred that led us to where we are now socially, it was something that I just couldn’t pass up,” she said.
She and McGill reworked some aspects of the show so that Blue could portray characters with different perspectives, such as female voices. One that particularly resonates with her is Emmett Till’s mother — when McGill was the actor, he delivered a monologue from the perspective of Till’s uncle.
“It’s the mom’s point of view in this,” Blue said of the latest iteration of “Nation in Crisis.” “It’s a bit closer to the whole experience and me, being a mother myself, that monologue in particular is very moving, just the impact of a mother losing her son.”
Blue also had the idea to weave music into the show.
“I felt like it would just add something to the experience and with music being so integral to Black history in America, I thought it was totally appropriate,” she said. “And I love to sing. So it just all came together.”
She got to tour the production to schools briefly in early 2020. Then the pandemic hit, and they shifted to reworking the show for a virtual presentation.
Blue said it “means the world” to be able to share these stories, especially recently following the police killing of Breonna Taylor.
“[It] really hit home to me as a Black woman in Louisville. And sometimes you feel a little helpless when things like this happen,” she said. “I’m a mother, I have kids. So I couldn’t be on the front lines of some of the protests… And this was made available for me to do, it just gave me the opportunity… to put some content out into the community that would speak to our history as a people.”
Whether for a general audience or school-aged kids, McGill hopes the work will inspire others to be a part of positive social change.
“My wish is that you’ll see this and discover something about history and something about yourself and something about your own power,” he said.
And he believes art has the ability to do that.
“Why do we still do Shakespeare? Why do we still do Greek drama? Why do we still marvel at a Monet painting,” he said. “It’s because it broke something open, and now we can’t shut the door.”
Blue hopes those who see the show will want to keep learning about Black Americans’ contributions and history the rest of the year too.
“I’m glad we do have a set time to particularly explore the stories of my people,” she said. “I do want it to become kind of a mainstream just American history, rather than just Black history during Black History Month. And I think that’s something that we’re working toward as a community, as a society.”