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January 14, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 14, 2005

Before Rosa Parks Before Rosa Parks (January 14, 2005)

Play spotlights Montgomery teenager who refused to give up her bus seat

by Sue Dremann

The way storyteller-actress Awele Makeba sees it, the history we know is largely composed of tall tales.

Makeba is a teller of tales herself, but has made it her life's work to tell history through the words of its oft-forgotten witnesses.

In her one-woman drama, "Rage Is Not A 1-Day Thing!," Makeba tells the true story of the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott through the eyes of Claudette Colvin, who at 15 became the first person jailed for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person.

Makeba performed the piece on Jan. 13 at Stanford's Tresidder Union, as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute program. Makeba and Colvin will participate today in an Open House at Stanford's Cypress Hall.

"Rage" engages the audience in the drama of Montgomery's teenagers. Without them, the civil rights movement wouldn't have happened, Makeba said. With her play, Makeba aims to right history's mythology.

"I didn't want to silence voices already marginalized," Makeba said of her decision to go beyond the myth of Rosa Parks, long celebrated as the first person arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. Parks' arrest sparked the year-long bus boycott that began dismantling the Southern apartheid system.

"This story was like a gold mine -- a very powerful case study"...of ordinary people who challenged the societal structure, Makeba said. "History in books gives us four to five paragraphs about (Parks') tired feet. It doesn't get into the context of what was going on... the movement could never have happened without middle school and high school students -- and women," she said.

Makeba, who holds a degree in classical theater and a master's in elementary education, developed the idea for "Rage" while looking for stories to help a disturbed high school senior she was mentoring.

Working through the Urban Arts after-school program in Oakland, she wanted to give the young woman role models.

"I started looking for stories of teenagers facing adversity but who rose above it and became stronger," she said.

Then Makeba came across Ellen Levine's book, "Freedom's Children," featuring narratives of 30 teenage civil rights activists from the 1950s and 60s. Among them she found Colvin's story.

"I was absolutely stunned," she said. The history she had read -- the history taught all of her life -- had not included the story of Colvin, or of Mary Louise Smith, another African-American teenager arrested before Parks.

Colvin was jailed nine months prior to Parks' arrest, but her role remained largely unrecognized. She wasn't considered a suitable icon, Makeba said. She was an outspoken, "rebellious" teenager. By the time her court case rolled around she was also pregnant.

Begun in 2000, the play is a work in progress. Its richly textured voices tell the tale of a movement borne out of the identity crisis of teenagers -- a universal theme compatible with modern youths' concerns.

But the potency of adolescent identity crises was compounded in the 1950s. Teachers at Booker T. Washington High School, which Colvin attended, were teaching black students the radical notion of critical thinking. Colvin's teachers asked her to "really think of who you were every day," Makeba said. "'Do you know who you are on the inside? And on the outside? Do you know what it is like to be an American?'"

Those questions had to reverberate in Colvin's mind as she navigated Alabama's political and social system, Makeba said.

"She couldn't try on clothes; she was not able to go to the rodeo to see Roy Rogers... she couldn't eat at the lunch counter."

But the defining outrage was the arrest and execution of fellow student Jeremiah Reeves, wrongly convicted of raping a white woman.

"The authorities kept him in jail until he came of age, and then they electrocuted him. ...that anger is still in me... Our rebellion and anger came with Jeremiah Reeves," Colvin, now a resident of New York City, related in "Freedom's Children."

When Colvin was told to give her seat up to a white person, the questions she had asked herself about who she was, and what it meant to be an American citizen came full circle in that moment. She had paid her fare. It was her constitutional right, she said. And then, there was the execution of Reeves.

Through "Rage," Makeba hopes to give today's young people tools to channel their own anger, and to turn it into a force for positive change through activism. The visual media has become a teacher to today's youth, a trend she finds disturbing, especially because of its sound-bite interpretation of reality, she said.

Makeba has taken "Rage" on the road since spring 2000, performing in schools. In Brentwood, she performed at a school where a noose was found hanging on campus with a racial epithet attached. Using the lessons of the past, she brought thought and awareness to white students who had expressed racist viewpoints.

In telling Colvin'story, Makeba wants to instill critical thinking in students, to give them a sense of power.

"If kids still believe they are powerless, they don't know these narratives," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at

An Open House will take place today at 2 p.m. at Stanford University's Cypress Hall D, 466 Via Ortega. Presented by the King Papers Project, the event will feature special guests Awele Makeba, Claudette Colvin, Ronnie Lott and Steven Logwood from Positive Records. To RSVP please call (650) 736-0711.

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