A drama teacher stages a revolution inside a school – and galvanizes a town
In Mississippi, M.J. Etua helps students look outside their own world as they participate in a competition against better-funded programs.
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Soon, Etua began to write her own plays, with classroom feedback, which allowed students an emotional stake in the creative process. A handful of early productions proved successful and, two years ago, Etua began work on "Thunder," her most ambitious project to date.Skip to next paragraph
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"I had a kid who was very interested in starting a protest at Louisville High," Etua remembers. "I told him, 'If you're going to do it, you might as well do it well.' And I explained how students have made huge impacts on our culture in the past."
Etua gave her student a primer on the peaceful protest movement in the South, leading him back through the tear gas, the lynchings, and the sit-ins.
Eventually she arrived at the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Ala. – an act that claimed the lives of four young African-American girls and shook the civil rights movement to the core.
"Thunder" first came to life as a vignette about the protests that proceeded and followed the bombing, but eventually widened to encompass the hard-won achievements of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (The name of the play comes from a line of an old spiritual.) For the students of Louisville High, most of whom are black, it became a way to understand their own history.
"I'd been introduced to some of it at a very young age," says Matthew Green. "I knew how bad it was for a black person back then. But the performance made me feel like I was there."
Thames, who looked at graphic photo evidence of the bombing's aftermath, says she soon realized that this "could have been my mother. Could have been my family." On stage, she adds, she is cognizant of the terror that the bombings caused and she often drives her performance by visualizing the photos.
"Thunder" is a wrenching thing to watch – it's staged simply, with only four wooden crates as props, but acted with a surfeit of heart. Voices included Martin Luther King Jr., the press, and the girls themselves, who bicker about the prospect of joining the protest movement and marching on Birmingham. Eventually, the bomb explodes, and their bodies crumple, in small heaps, across the stage.
Stephen Cunetto, the executive director of the Mississippi Theater Association says that the play is a good fit for this year's festival, which includes work from a variety of high school drama programs.
"In theater, it doesn't matter if you have the money or not," he says. "M.J. has proved that."
Searching for inspiration
Last week, the day before the Louisville High troupe was scheduled to leave for Hattiesburg, Etua assembled her students in the school's bright, high-ceilinged auditorium for a final dress rehearsal. The performance, some students admitted, was a mess. The dialogue was sagging in spots; the blocking of the funeral scene had gone haywire, and a few key props were missing.
"Martin Luther King," Etua shouted to Jamarcus Chambers, the actor playing Dr. King, "never goes anywhere without his Bible. Where's your Bible, Martin Luther King?"
"You have a message to give these people," she said, after a long pause. "It's a difficult one, I know. But it's the glory of the story. You've got to trust in that."
Later that evening, Rash said the problems were mostly a product of nerves and high-flying emotion. It was a familiar feeling. In Starkville, the audience had cried during the performance and cheered with such force that Rash "wasn't in character anymore. I literally broke character – I was Chris again, thinking, 'Please, Lord, let us have a good show.' "
But Etua's greatest gift, he said, was making her students look past the din of those fears, to find their own source of inspiration. "Ms. Etua saw something in me that I hadn't seen in myself," says Thames. "It's a blessing."