Black history is American history, to be shared and experienced by all.
This is the message the Savannah State University’s(SSU) theatre group, Players by the Sea, in collaboration with The Collective Face Theatre Ensemble, hopes audiences will take away from their theatrical performance of “Ida B. n’ the Lynching Tree,” showing Feb. 16-20 at the Kennedy Fine Arts Center on SSU’s campus.
David I. L. Poole, SSU’s senior lecturer in theatre and director of the performance said, “When attendees leave this production, we want them to walk away knowing who Ida B. was, what her life entailed, and how it pertains to today.”
This story centers on the life of Pulitzer Prize winner (posthumously in 2020), Ida B. Wells, a suffragette, journalist, and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who was a champion for injustice with a lifelong crusade against lynching and inequities.
As the director and designer of the show, Poole brings his years of experience in theatre, design, and directing, to showcase and significant story of our history.
“This production came about because we’re always looking for pieces for our students to participate in and explore during the Black Heritage Festival,” Poole said.
“Every year, the Players by The Sea student theatre organization and the theatre department combine to do a production for the festival. The playwright, Carolyn Nur Wistrand, is a good friend of mine, and she did this play at Dillard University in New Orleans—an Historic Black College and University (HBCU). I helped her with the dramaturgical work on it and then said, ‘Why don’t we do it here at Savannah State and we can make a big thing out of it?’”
Poole and his students went to work. The large cast and crew of close to 30 knew it was a big undertaking and a huge production.
“Not everyone is familiar with Ida B. and her contributions. But then, all of a sudden, Ida B. Wells started coming up everywhere,” Poole stated.
“She won the Pulitzer posthumously in 2020 and a commemorative Barbie is out this year honoring her.. Poole knew he was hitting on something not only topical, but necessary.
“It was time for us to do it,” he said. “I had the student body to do it.”
The dramatic and musical performance is an origin story of Ida B. Wells. “It doesn’t go into her later life when she was a suffragette, or when she lived in Chicago, raised her children, or was a founding NAACP member… it doesn’t go into that,” Poole explained. “It stops when she has her exodus from Memphis. Then, it comes back around and it revolves around her life as a person in a retrospective.”
The performance, lasting almost two hours, will touch upon several interesting events and stories in her life. Poole said the performance promises not to bore or be stodgy.
“If I can describe it in one word,” Poole said, “it’s fresh.”
“It has a sort of Hamilton-esque feel to it,” he said. “It is history told through a modern lens and through modern forms of music. During the play, we get interruptions and stream of consciousness throughout. There are rap songs that aren’t period-accurate at all. It breaks down that fourth wall, getting the audience involved.”
Despite being born into slavery in 1862, Ida B. Wells became a pioneering journalist and outspoken activist for civil rights and women’s suffrage.
She co-owned and edited a Memphis newspaper where she courageously wrote about inequality affecting African Americans.
“It’s an origin story, as I said, from her birth to her time in Memphis and the lynching of the three men,” the director said. “Her friend and his compatriots were lynched for owning a black grocery store. That’s what was really the catalyst to go on this crusade for justice, as she put it. She traveled all across the United States documenting and reporting on lynchings and making them known. She went to Europe to speak, as well. All her life, she worked to get anti-lynching legislation and justice for the victims.”
“It’s essential that we share her life experiences,” he stressed. “There was an interesting incident when she was a teacher in her early 20s. We know—because it’s documented—that she was riding the train to get to the country school where she was teaching. She purchased a first-class ticket for the ladies’ car, but she was told she couldn’t sit with the other ladies because she was black.”
“Sometimes, they allowed African American ladies to ride, and sometimes they didn’t. This time, there was an influential, uppity woman who complained and insisted Ida not be allowed to sit in the seat she’d paid for. Ida refuses to leave and was thrown off the train.”
Poole snickered retelling the history. “She apparently bit a conductor when she got thrown off the train. She was very feisty… but she wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
The story didn’t end there.
Continuing, Poole said, “Ida B. got thrown off the train and she decided to sue the railroad, which was unheard of at the time. When it went to trial in the local Memphis court, she won a ruling of $500, which in the late 1800s was a lot of money.”
Unfortunately, a later Tennessee court ruling would overturn her compensation, but the story remains valuable because after being released from her teaching position, Ida B. Wells moved on to become a journalist.
“She was fired for writing about the atrocities in the school system. She let it be known how black students in the country schools weren’t getting as much in terms of education, books, or lessons as the white students and she put it in the paper. She decided to be a journalist full time and worked in Memphis writing local stories. She started reporting about lynchings when her friend, Tommy Moss, was killed in this manner. It launched her crusade for justice.”
When asked why Savannah State’s theatre group chose this particular play, Poole said he felt it is very important, especially now.
“If we don’t learn our history, we are bound to repeat it,” he said.
“We learn from Ida’s experiences and her quest that there needs to be justice for all. There needs to be fairness and compassion for all. This piece shows that. We need to know her crusade and continue her fight,” the director stressed.
“In the play, Ida talks as she wades into the water to sing about the need, ‘to keep the waters troubled.’ By the end, the whole cast rejoices in singing how they’re not going to let the waters go untroubled. These people won’t be forgotten. That’s the message of the play.”
“It’s the perfect play to do at an HBCU with these students, faculty, community, everyone who has bound together. They’ve all done an amazing job preparing for this,” Poole said.
Surprisingly, this was a new story for some students.
“Ida B. Wells is a figure that came into play for a while and then went away,” Poole said. No one really knew who she was for a long time. All of a sudden, she percolated again because of the modern-day lynchings going on throughout the country. We still have a lot to learn from Ida B. Wells. Her writings about lynchings are some of the most important pieces of literature on the matter,” said Poole.
“As a director, I always sit with the cast to do the first read-through and I pose the question: ‘Why this play now?. This opened up an important discussion and dialogue on what it means to be black in America in 2022… and moving forward. The students read the darker sides of the play and they got it. They understood how important it was and that this was the time to tell this story.”
Poole explained the play is structured into four pageants – theatrical framing devices. “A pageant has its history in the turn of the century Victorian carnival type of idea,” Poole explained. “Each pageant is a section of her life. However, the way the play write has written it—it’s kind of ingenious—is it’s all a retrospective.”
SSU senior, Tiffany Wright, starts the play as the elderly Ida.
“Tiffany encapsulates this beautiful woman toward the end of her life. Ida B. is being interviewed by reporters—the whole ensemble is a part of it. In interviewing her, we see her younger self revealed through Vanity Daniel, a local community player who embodies the younger Ida B.”
Working with material such as this is understandably emotional for the players. “The emotions are there, but we’re not invested yet,” Poole shared. “We’re working on learning the lines, blocking the play and such, but we’re getting into it and now learning how it’s the time to start digging into those gems of emotion.”
Poole is certain of one thing.
“There will be tears. I know there will be. There will be tears of sadness, but also joy… which is so important. Especially now when we’ve been in a pandemic for two years. This idea of community, sisterhood, brotherhood, doing something together for good of us all…well, it’s something we have to get back to,” he stressed.
Having a live audience for performances will be a different experience for some of the actors.
“We have a lot of the freshmen in the show and they just haven’t been around people in two years,” Poole said with a laugh. “Everything has been different for them. Graduation, school, chatting with friends, proms, dates, etc. – they either didn’t happen or were conducted online. So, coming back to the environment of a university campus where we’re face to face, communicating with each other…it’s wild to think these young kids haven’t had that.”
As a teacher of theatre, Poole knows this might be a challenge moving forward.
“How do we navigate this sort of world we’re dealing with now while teaching these willing students the principles of live theatre? What does that even mean as compared to just doing a live stream over the internet without a reaction? Well, it means they’ll see reactions, hear laughter, sense the surrounding. It’ll be interesting to have them in front of a real audience. It will be magical,” he assures.
Poole’s plan all along with this production was community and sharing.
“My whole thing with theatre is to make it an event. It’s not just someone saying they’re going to a play and then going home. I like this whole atmospheric of what are we doing, what can we add, how can we weave elements into one thing to make it another.”
The interesting event twist Poole came up with was a close tie-in with Ida B.’s Memphis by turning the concession area into an homage to the People’s Grocery Store.
“I contacted several black-owned businesses and asked how they could be part of the celebration. We bought goods from these black-owned businesses to sell at our concession stand, in essence making our own People’s Grocery Store,” Poole said. “So, it celebrates black culture to the fullest and it supports the local community. We have hair products, canned goods, baked items, and many more items. We’re working to get more people involved.”
In addition to the tribute to the People’s Grocery Store, local food trucks will also be on hand for the evenings of Wednesday and Friday.
Poole noted, however, that the Wednesday night performance in conjunction with the Black Heritage Festival is already sold out.
“I was talking to Carolyn [the playwright], and she said, ‘This play, for some reason, has some kind of magic power to it. It’s almost as if Ida B. is blessing this play.’” Poole seems to agree. “It was written in 2000, very much ahead of its time, and produced only four times. So, we are thrilled to be able to present it here.”
“I’ve been in Savannah for a long time and I’ve done a lot of shows, but this one is magical and will bring people together. It will get folks out of the woodwork and out of the house. It’s the chance to cheer together for an underdog and to keep the waters troubled.”
It’s more than just a job and a mere performance, Poole stressed. “We are teaching these students more than the basics of theatre…of their movement, actions, and dialogue. We’re teaching them community and life lessons.”
“Ida B. was a pioneer in her day. This production is a partnership with Collective Face Theatre Ensemble and that partnership has laid a bridge for the idea of unity, community, students, faculty, staff, everyone working together to make this a special event. This woman’s legacy and history have to be shared.”
“We hope it inspires everyone with the message of hope, justice, and history. We need it.”
The production is choreographed by SSU alumna Mikeshia McPhaul with sound development by Mary Edwards, a sound designer and composer from Savannah and New York City.
For more information or to reserve your tickets, visit savannahstate.edu
Clara Faith was a contributor to this story.