Civil rights fight portrayed in play

February 17, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

Kia Phillips does a convincing cry.

In a short play about the civil rights movement, Phillips plays "The Crying Girl." She has to pretend she's living in the 1950s South and just had acid thrown on her face in school because she's black.

Phillips is a junior at Smithsburg High School. At 17 years old, she's far too young to have experienced firsthand segregation or the back of the bus or "We Shall Overcome."

So, during a rehearsal for this week's play, Phillips summoned torment as she imagined it must have been. She did her best to play The Crying Girl true to life.


"I do feel it," she said. "When I was doing the crying part, I had tears in my eyes. ... It must have hurt back then."

Phillips and junior Corina Campbell, also 17, decided last summer that students in Smithsburg should know more black history, including its ugly chapters. The high school didn't do much before to recognize Black History Month, the girls said.

They formed the African-American Heritage Club. Phillips said the club is open to everyone in the school.

There are 26 black students at Smithsburg High School, said Willie Gardner, a special education teacher who is the club's adviser. She is also black.

The school has about 820 students, Principal Valerie Novak said.

Ninety percent of the students in the school will be in the minority at some point in their lives, which is why everyone should understand the harm of prejudice, Campbell said.

"A lot of the students don't want to comprehend what it's like to be in our spot," she said. "This will prepare them."

Novak said black students and white students seem to get along at the school.

However, twice last fall, racist graffiti was found in school bathrooms, she said. It was immediately erased.

Novak called the graffiti "very offensive."

"It's against the law, but we have to catch them," she said.

Gardner would rather not dwell on the incidents. "What gets noticed gets reinforced," she said.

Sensitivity training

Novak said the school set up sensitivity training sessions for teachers to detect racism. A child psychology expert from the Midwest talked to students about character. A large banner that says "citizenship" was hung in the school.

The next step, Novak said, may be ribbons that say "tolerance" for students to wear.

"What we really don't want is having racial issues," she said.

Phillips and Campbell said their club talks about racism in general and to debunk stereotypes. They want to learn.

"There's a lot of stuff I don't know about Caucasians," Phillips said.

Campbell and Phillips laughed as they talked about the false assumptions they've heard white classmates make.

Phillips doesn't jump in and rap when someone sings a few verses of Busta Rhymes. She prefers rhythm and blues artists, like Aaliyah and Mya.

Campbell doesn't say "What up, G?" to each person she meets.

G stands for gangster, she said. Do people realize that?

"We don't all talk Ebonics," Phillips said. "We talk very intelligently, I believe."

Still, there will always be questions and comments and funny looks.

Each girl said she is usually the only black person in her class. The girls said that if a lesson involves Africa or black people or race, eyes turn toward them.

"Everyone just looks at you, and it's very uncomfortable," Phillips said. "White people don't have that."

School performance

Campbell, Phillips and a cast of other black and white students will expect classmates' eyes to be trained on them this week when they perform "We've Come This Far By Faith." The show will run second period Wednesday and Thursday in the auditorium. People in the community who are interested may attend, Novak said.

Gardner said students in the drama club are helping with the play and filling in some of the white roles.

The play is short and direct. Campbell portrays a woman sitting with her granddaughter and recalling long-ago struggles of the civil rights movement.

Through flashbacks, the audience sees a classroom that black students have been forced to share with white students. The Crying Girl runs in.

Another scene depicts Rosa Parks, a black woman, refusing to give up her seat on a public bus.

Rusty Burdette, who is white, plays the white man who orders her to move.

"Get up, black woman, I want to sit there," Burdette snaps.

Poised in her role as Parks, Cassandra Daniel, who is black, flatly refuses.

A rendition of "Hit the Road, Jack" comes on for several seconds, then fades out.

Both actors said they aren't bothered by the disturbing exchange on stage.

"When I'm acting, it's that character," said Burdette, who plans to join the African-American Heritage Club. "It's not for me. I'm doing it for the character who yells at Rosa Parks."

Daniel said she was proud to play Parks, who was arrested in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat.

"I try to keep it in perspective," Daniel said. "I'm able to portray it now because that was the battle then."

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