Hundreds of years of black history … in one voice
By Stephanie Jadrnicek
PENDLETON — Jeremiah Dew didn’t know anything about Wildred J. Walker Sr. when he walked into the Greenville resident’s home in 2008.
It was happenstance. Dew was asked to play the role of camera man for a Leadership Greenville class project and simply showed up to do the job. He had no idea a seed would be planted that would change his life.
In Walker’s hour-long interview he told many stories, one of which was about the racism he encountered at the highway department in Greenville in the 1940s.
“I was touched and moved — it wasn’t the type of stuff I’d ever heard, and I didn’t know people who told those stories,” Dew said. “Those stories were told in book form, and they were in movies. So when I watched him break down emotionally about how he was treated in 1945, something that still makes him cry in 2008, I couldn’t imagine who would treat anyone like that.”
Several years later, he saw a live one-man theater show and felt confident that he had the skills to pull off a similar performance. He used his theatrical experience from high school, college and community theater to launch “One Voice: A Black History Narrative.”
The production is a journey through black American history, guided by seven powerful and influential voices. Dew plays five of the seven characters, beginning with a few poems from James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones,” and leading into an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography.
“Then I move onto Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, one of Muhammad Ali’s poems, and it ends with Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ speech from 2008,” Dew said. “Basically, going from then until now through these characters who don’t have anything to do with each other. But their significance is they use their one voice to affect change.”
The performance also includes video vignettes of two Upstate residents, one of who is Walker and the other is Dr. Margaree Seawright Crosby, a Clemson University professor emeritus.
“She’s now in her 70s and she tells her story of the Greenville eight — eight college students who did a protest sit-in from Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville to the library,” he said. “They sat down, got some books and ended up in jail. The case went to court, the judge threw it out, and the Greenville library system was opened for everybody. Prior to that, in the summer of 1960, it was a whites-only facility.”
Crosby was the first African-American woman to serve on the Greenville Hospital System board, but when she was 19 years old she couldn’t get into the public library.
Spanning from the 1820s to the present, the audience will experience a timeline that covers the struggle and heartaches to the breakthroughs and achievements of the black American voice.
“Frederick Douglass, toward the beginning, is talking about his coming of age. When he’s being moved as a child from the outskirts of the plantation to living as a house slave in his master’s house,”Dew said. “So we go from him watching his aunt get whipped in the house by his master and we end with an African-American descent president.”
Dew’s first production of the show was in February 2011, and since then he has performed in front of more than 50 audiences in schools, churches and other community events.
He said he hopes the audience members walk away remembering seeing the characters come to life.
“Most of the characters that I play we know historically, but we haven’t seen these folks talk to us in their words,” he said. “We’ve heard people talk about them and we’ve talked about them, but this production brings folks in — I don’t talk about them, I become them.”
So when Dew recites King’s famous speech, everyone in the audience will get swept back into 1963. Every part is word for word, just like they would have heard it then.
“So from an educational standpoint, that’s powerful,” he said.
The characters talk to the audience as if they’re in their living room — the production is not a lecture, not commentary, it’s only the characters reading their own words.
“So many folks come up to me afterward and talk to me and say it moved them because it wasn’t very humanized in my mind,” Dew said. “I think they’ll be able to take that away, seeing these characters come alive, rather than reading about them in a book.”
The show begins at 4 p.m. Sunday at Clemson Little Theatre in Pendleton. Tickets cost $20 each. For more information, call (864) 973-8243 or (864) 287-8619.
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