Review: Play at TheatreWorks in Memphis examines voting rights, sacrifice

Ian Goodwin, Leerin Campbell and Noby Edwards in a scene from the play 'The Left Hand Singing,' now running at TheatreWorks.

Ian Goodwin, Leerin Campbell and Noby Edwards in a scene from the play "The Left Hand Singing," now running at TheatreWorks.

Prior to last November's election, several states were criticized for making changes to their election procedures, such as requiring a valid photo ID to vote or reducing the number of early voting days. To liberals at least, these tactics smacked of old-fashioned voter suppression.

These days, making it easier for people to vote may not seem like a pressing national matter.

But historically, hindering minority voters has been so critical to people in power that it took four hard-fought Constitutional amendments to arrive at a point in American history when men and women, age 18 or older, of any color, can vote without being taxed for it.

The right to vote is, in a way, the heart of the stage drama "The Left Hand Singing," now running at TheatreWorks.

Barbara Lebow's play is set during the Freedom Summer movement of 1964, when hundreds of college students and activists, mostly from northern states, flooded into Mississippi to help black people register to vote. White politicians in the heavily African-American state had many schemes to retain power: poll taxes, literacy tests and widespread voter intimidation.

When that didn't work, locals turned to violence, even murder.

Death — let's call it a kind of martyrdom — links two separate struggles in this drama of idealism. On one side of the TheatreWorks stage, three college kids debate whether to go to Mississippi for the summer. Black, white and Jewish, they envision a utopian America just on the horizon. In the bubble of a dorm room, they listen to classical music on the record player, giggle over people's funny accents and see themselves as the future of the country.

On the other half of the stage, three of their parents — also black, white and Jewish — come together in the aftermath of the students' journey to Mississippi.

Their kids have vanished without a trace.

The parents have some of their children's idealism, but find themselves stumbling over themselves at times.

On the kids' side, black student Honey (Noby Edwards) isn't convinced that she'll do much good in Mississippi, while Jewish student Linda (Leerin Campbell) has an almost romantic notion of the trip. Both are persuaded to go by white law student Wesley (Ian Goodwin), the son of a liberal-minded preacher.

After the disappearance, the preacher (S.A. Weakley) looks for spiritual meaning in his son's fatal mission. The Jewish mother, Bea (Karin Barile), devotes her life to liberal causes, even though her friendship with Honey's mom, Maddy (Claire Kolheim) experiences road bumps and misunderstandings.

Directed by Playhouse on the Square's Dave Landis, "The Left Hand Singing" is not the most focused of scripts or productions. Overly sentimental in places, and plodding in others, the most elusive element is a clear antagonist.

A handful of films such as "Mississippi Burning" (also based on the real-life murders of Freedom Summer workers) have a more clear-cut enemy: prejudice, hatred and injustice.

Like the parents of the missing college kids, we find ourselves searching for a resolution while clinging to the notion that those who died in the fight for basic voting rights did not die in vain.

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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