Play takes trip to Freedom Summer to examine prejudice in 1964

Leerin Campbell, Noby Edwards and Ian Goodwin in "Left Hand Singing" at TheatreWorks.
Courtesy Playhouse on the Square

Leerin Campbell, Noby Edwards and Ian Goodwin in "Left Hand Singing" at TheatreWorks. Courtesy Playhouse on the Square

The complexities of racial prejudice and the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement gets a personalized treatment in "The Left Hand Singing," a play having its regional premiere this weekend at TheatreWorks.

The fictional drama, by Barbara Lebow, finds its source in the infamous 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., by Ku Klux Klansmen.

"Left Hand," which director Dave Landis describes as essentially two plays in one, begins with three college students in their dorm room planning to be part of Freedom Summer in 1964 where volunteers went to Mississippi to encourage voter registration.

"The kids are struggling with their own prejudices," Landis says, "But they all want to pick up the mantle of President Kennedy's inaugural call to 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' They want to have a purpose in life and do something worthwhile."

But the students vanish during their mission, and the second part of the drama focuses on the parents, "who deal with the tragedy of the disappearance and their own prejudices," Landis says. Over subsequent decades, the African-American mother, the Methodist minister and his wife, and the Jewish mother agonize over the loss and personalize the complexities of racism and civil rights in America.

While the story is based on events seared into the memories of the Baby Boom generation — Kennedy's assassination and the acceleration of the Civil Rights Movement — it's a bit more abstract in the minds of younger folks. Landis says the younger actors have taken a historical trip in discovering where racism and prejudice were coming from 50 years ago as America emerged from the "Happy Days" postwar years.

"It's a fascinating journey trying to get them to understand the times," Landis says, "and why young people were so passionate about getting involved — and why parents were saying 'Don't do that, you're perfect, don't stir up trouble.'"

While the subject matter is serious, Landis cautions against thinking of the play as a downer. "It examines prejudice and racism from a personal level but there are fun moments, especially with the kids," he says, "and with the adults on how they feel about each other."

He says that "Left Hand" — which has the Facing History and Ourselves organization as a sponsor — is a perfect companion piece for the production of Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop" that opens Jan. 18 at Circuit Playhouse. That play imagines events with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel on the eve of his assassination.

“The Left Hand Singing”

Friday through Jan. 27 at TheatreWorks, 2085 Monroe Ave. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets: $22 opening weekend (Jan. 4-6), $30 Thursdays and Sundays, $35 Fridays and Saturdays; $22 Seniors/Students/Military; $10 for children under 18. Call 901-726-4656, or go to playhouseonthesquare.org.

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