Take a theater filled to capacity with chattering, animated pre-pubescent kids, engage them with rousing renditions of stories and songs about people they know and admire, galvanize them to shout and sing along, stand up, march around its perimeter, jump up and join you on the stage, and you’re looking at a demonstration of how two skilled and enthusiastic performers plus history told with you-are-there enthusiasm plus an elementary but highly serviceable set add up to a lesson in history and humanity that many of those kids will be talking about long after it’s over.
The only regret is that it’s over so soon. This is a matter of not so much the length of the play (at a tidy 45 minutes, it’s perfect for its notoriously fidgety target audience) but the length of its run: By the time you read this, it will probably be too late to see it. Still, as it’s part of a month-long program of Black History Month events on tap at the Smithsonian Institution’s National History Museum in the coming weeks, it may well be a useful barometer of what is still to come.
Sit Down, Stand Up! celebrates the 50th anniversary of the sit-in by four African-American college students on February 1, 1960 at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, South Carolina. Refused service after politely requesting it, the students staged their own refusal, remaining in their seats and declining to leave. They were soon joined by other students who took their place, enabling the protest to continue uninterrupted. In the end it would swell to a six-month demonstration encompassing hundreds of students, adults, churches, community and civil rights organizations, resulting in the lunch counter’s desegregation on July 25,1960.
Xavier Carnegie and Lulu Fall are capable, kid-friendly purveyors of knowledge whose combined earnestness, openness and assurance made what could have become a competitive free-for-all rather a community learning experience where cheering and camaraderie were the norm. (The few parents and teachers whose heads were visible seemed to be enjoying the show as much as their charges, occasionally leaning over to ask or answer questions rather than to scold or remonstrate.) What was it that so captured kids who, in this age of the media-savvy supertot — or so the common wisdom tells us — have seen it all by the age of six and are bored by even the most sophisticated, killer techno-gadgets by the time they’re ten?
It is, it turns out, an old secret that never grows old, one known to grandmothers and grandfathers from time immemorial: the magic of storytelling. Carnegie and Fall, dressed simply in black and white (he in white shirt, black slacks and tie, she in white blouse and black skirt) use the songs, slogans, posters and photographs of the era to tell the story of the protest and personalize it for their young audience. At first shy or hesitant, it wasn’t long before the children were eagerly responding to Fall and Carnegie’s invitation for them to put themselves in the protesting students’ place. With clarion calls of “We shall not be moved!” and “Let freedom ring!” the theatre erupted sporadically in enthusiastic song, the children and their adult companions clapping in rhythm, with row after row swaying from side to side.
Fall and Carnegie, each part teacher, part preacher, alternately gave and picked up the other’s lines (a mode effectively employed throughout the show) as they explained how everything was segregated at the time of the protest, asking: “How were things changed?” In best teacher mode came a brief history lesson on the brutalization and jailing of many of the protesters, ending in a fill-in-the-blank statement that brought a surprisingly quick response from a large part of the audience: “But in the face of it all, they…” “Sang!” came the chorus of kids, by now veterans who no doubt felt they were part of the show.
And they were. As if on cue, Carnegie and Fall broke into a series of revival and protest songs demonstrating how well-known hymns and tunes were fitted with new words to mobilize and inspire the community. The audience, by now completely caught up in the moment, eagerly seized their chance, as Fall and Carnegie (“Let’s hear it!”) urged them on to increasingly fervent refrains of “We shall not be moved” and “Let freedom ring!”
“I woke up this morning with my mind staying on freedom,” warbled Carnegie affectingly, to which Fall replied: “When I hear you sing that song, I know people like you and me can make things happen, can make a change.” Watching this show, however jaded you may be, you almost begin to believe it. You certainly want to.
Sit Down, Stand Up! The Story of the Student Sit-ins
Produced by: Discovery Theater, The Smithsonian Associates, Smithsonian Institution
Location: National Museum of American History, Carmichael Auditorium, 14th Street and Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, DC
Sit Down, Stand Up! Played 4 performances Feb 4-5, 2010.
Click here for more information.