By Heidi Masek email@example.com
The time and effort Lowell Williams and Yellow Taxi have put into creating Six Nights in the Black Belt was clear at the world premiere in Nashua, Friday, May 4. The Nashua writerís play has been under construction for a year or more. The public was invited to help the shape the script at staged readings earlier in the season.
The subject of Six Nights is Jonathan Daniels, a young man from Keene who was killed in the struggle for civil rights. Since this is a true story and the ending is known, Williams doesnít rush to introduce the characters. Instead, he builds on them steadily throughout the show by having them relay their interactions with Daniels, who was a junior Episcopal priest in 1965 when he was killed. The play opens with fellow seminarian Judy taking two of Danielsí fellow activists from Alabama to the Cathedral of the Pines after Danielsí funeral in New Hampshire. Judy had convinced Daniels to answer Dr. Martin Luther Kingís request for clergy to help with the civil rights movement. She asks Ruby Sales and Stokely Carmichel to explain what had happened in the last days before Daniels was shot.
From this hilltop, Williams weaves together the story of why Daniels decided to work for civil rights in and around Selma, how he met Stokely Carmichael, who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later the Black Panther Party, and how he affected those he met.
When each character relays a memory of how Daniels worked to integrate churches up through the six days Daniels spent in jail before he was shot, Williams creates a new scene. The stories come to life as the characters try to explain things to each other. This is more impressive than a film flashback technique because this is live and actors play more than one role. Director James Phillips, the cast and production designers have done a brilliant job making the introduction to a story transition smoothly and immediately to the tale being acted out. Daniels comes back to life through these scenes. Williams also uses them to remind us of what segregation meant in everyday interactions. This style gave the play a sense of urgency and a rhythm which fortunately is not broken with an intermission. At less than two hours, the show doesnít need one.
Raphael Rawlins gave a compelling performance as Carmichael, and smoothly switched into other roles as a black man at a bus stop and a white pastor. Rawlins performs at Seacoast Repertory and elsewhere in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Maria Mendes met the challenging task of portraying Sales, switching character a few times, and also sang. Her portrayal of the bar woman who introduces Carmichael and Daniels was hysterical. This is her first New Hampshire performance although she tours the northeast with Looking Glass Theatre of Providence, R.I. Valerie Tosi humanizes the 1960s seminarian Judy. Boston actor Doug Chilson shows Daniels as a sunny and optimistic yet wily activist. This is Chilsonís fifth play with Yellow Taxi. He also appeared in The Warmth of the Cold, Williamsí first full-length, which won him a New Hampshire Theatre Award.
Williamsí angle of telling Danielsí story by showing how he affected others allows him to explore the martyr in a dynamic way. After Daniels and Sales were released from jail they stopped to buy a soda. In front of the store a someone aimed a gun at Sales. Daniels pushed her to the ground, saving her life as the bullet took his. Sales attended the Cambridge divinity school Daniels did, and has founded the Spirit House Project in Washington, D.C., which seeks to bring diverse peoples together.
Thereís a lot more to the Daniels story as well as the other characters, so perhaps another benefit is that Six Nights in the Blackbelt might inspire you to learn more. The only part that was disappointing was how few people attended the opening night at 14 Court St. Theater. Lucky for you Six Nights runs one more weekend: Thursday, May 10, through Saturday, May 12, at 8 p.m. with a 2 p.m. show May 12. Ticket costs range from $15 to $20. See theatermania.com or yellowtaxiproductions.org.