I ran into Congressman John Lewis, one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, on my way to see “Freedom Riders,” the inspiring gospel and soul-flavored musical about the courageous efforts by black and white activists in 1961 to desegregate interstate travel in the South. Rep. Lewis was going to the same show, as it turns out, and he was also in the show – one of the characters.
For two hours, the actual John Lewis watched Anthony Chatmon II as John Lewis persist in the face of beatings and jailings; arguments over strategy with Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard) and Stokely Carmichael and other movement leaders; temporary setbacks and ultimate triumph. And he sings …many songs, with lyrics like:
We choose today to make history,
If you’re not willing to die for this, what good is life if not living for it?
I focus on John Lewis because the real person was in the audience at Theatre Row. But the character of John Lewis is far from the only focus of “Freedom Riders,” written by Richard Allen and composer Taran Gray. Fourteen performers portray some three dozen characters over 30 short scenes, from May 3, 1961 — a non-violent training session in Washington D.C. for those who will be riding the buses down South – to November 1, 1961, at a bus station in Birmingham, Alabama, newly integrated by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Alternating with scenes of the civil rights activists are those with federal officials, primarily Robert Kennedy (Barry Anderson), the Attorney General of the United States, who at first is simply indifferent to the Freedom Rides, then worried about the potential for violence and bad publicity for the nation, and then finally embraces the cause.
It is not surprising, given the many short scenes full of incident and huge cast of characters, that Allen writes primarily for film and television.
But the musical must make room as well for Taran Gray’s songs, 15 of them (some sung twice.) They are rousing soul, gospel, r&b, pop…and the performers deliver them like a major gale force rarely below a category 3.
Indeed, each and every one of the singers are such powerhouse talents that it can seem almost amusing: Even white actor Mike Nigro (!), whose characters include a convincingly thuggish white bigot and a nebbishy student activist, lets loose like a star soloist in a gospel choir.
They all sound like soloists, even when the entire cast is singing together. The result is intense, and exciting, but the experience as a whole feels largely…. unmodulated. (The most noticeable exception is Brynn Williams as movement leader Diane Nash, who besides the powerhouse songs is also given some lovely ballads.)
This musical is running for just a few performances through Saturday, August 5, as part of the New York Musical Festival. It may be worth it for the creative team to consult a dramaturge, and consider working on focus and pacing in the next production. And “Freedom Riders” is sure to have another production. It deserves an audience.