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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Together Apart

Greenwood, Miss., 1955: 14-year-old Emmett Till is brutally murdered, found in a creek bed with a bullet above his right ear. A black kid, Till was a victim of racial discrimination. Two white men were arrested and quickly acquitted after one hour before an all-white jury, and later sold their proud “we done it” story to Look Magazine. “His mother asked for an open casket, and photographs of the coffin were published in Jet,” says Garret Mathews, which sets the stage for his 1964, two-act play, Jubilee in the Rearview Mirror.

Mathews, a retired metro columnist from the Courier & Press, is an author of nine books and producer/playwright of Jubilee, directed by Ashley Ellen Frary, an active member of Evansville’s Tales & Scales. His inspiration for the civil rights-based play stemmed from research for a book he worked on in 2003. Interviewing dozens of civil rights volunteers and activists from the time, Mathews decided a play would take a different approach to tell the story of a nation during the 1964 “Freedom Summer.” In counties where Caucasians often made up a 60-percent majority, biased literacy tests and other means were used to limit black voting power (sometimes only 1-2 percent could vote). When the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent volunteers into the south for sit-ins and freedom rides to push for voter registration and school desegregation, the violence was far from over.

“I grew up with segregation in Virginia,” Mathews says. “Split white and colored drinking fountains, the black kids having to ride 40 miles longer on their bus routes, over-crowded schools; I want people to understand that the Jim Crow South of the ‘50s and ‘60s wasn’t that long ago.”

The play, set in fictional Jubilee, Miss., starts with a black civil rights worker getting jailed and sharing a “cell with a sullen white racist.” With a cast of 10, local talent honors the struggles and courage of civil rights volunteers.

Besides the powerful drama (interspersed with humor, Mathews assures), the most intriguing aspect of Jubilee is the background Mathews provides the audience. “Integration was more peaceful in this area,” he says. “Indiana didn’t have the rancor that was down south.”

Jubilee illustrates a fictionalized microcosm of segregation by splitting the audience. Each member’s ticket is linked to a biography about the victims and volunteers who fought segregation, and a pre-show is held 45 minutes before each performance. Film interviews of four blacks (all aged in their 70s) talk about segregation in their own time from the Evansville area. Mathews also took his cast to Till’s hometown of Greenwood, giving them perspective on what it was like in the Deep South. “I want the audience and actors to take on a persona,” Mathews says.

One of Mathews’ motivations behind Jubilee was his personal experiences with school integration in 1965 in Abingdon, Va. His story can be found at jubileeplay.com, along with a civil rights timeline and other information. “It’s pretty powerful stuff,” Mathews says. “Stuff we can’t ignore.”

Performances are at Evansville’s Civic Theatre Annex in Washington Square Mall, 5011 Washington Ave. Nov. 10-11 and Nov. 17-18; Saturdays at 7 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Pre-shows start 45 minutes before each performance. $12 per ticket. Find out more on Facebook or visit www.jubileeplay.com.

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