Bill Tucker researched and wrote a play about the writing of the U.S. Constitution. But the play that has his attention these days isn’t based on 200-year-old U.S. history. It’s one based on his personal history, history he lived through.
Tucker spent the summer of 1964 in Mississippi and the first act of the play he set in that tumultuous time period — “Freedom Summer” — will get a staged reading Sept. 13 at Nyack’s Elmwood Playhouse.
The reading is scheduled to start at about 8:30 Monday night, after the Elmwood board of directors’ annual meeting. The public is invited to attend. Admission is free.
Tucker says Monday’s very first performance of the play — which draws its mostly amateur cast of black and white non-actors from the community — is significant.
“We recruited from the community specifically because we wanted to promote communication and friendship between black and white neighbornoods and were hoping people would relate specifically to the subject,” he says.
Tucker says that specific goal has been reached, even before Monday’s reading takes place.
“One woman has been very emotional about it,” he says. “She says the elderly black characters in the play are exactly like her grandparents, whom she used to visit in the South. She recalls one night having them wake her up and take her to the window where the Ku Klux Klan was marching right outside her house. Another white woman said she had no experience of the Civil Rights Era but was immediately attracted to the subject and has been a big addition to the cast.”
Also in the cast is the Rev. Everett Newton, who leads the congregation at First Emmanuel Church. True to his day job, Newton plays a Southern preacher.
This won’t be a words-only affair, Tucker says.
Jazz pianist Sam Waymon — Nina Simone’s kid brother and a Nyack resident — is in the cast and has written music for the reading, including an original song, “Freedom is My Name,” which will end, Tucker says, with the audience joining in.
While Monday’s reading may be the first time “Freedom Summer” is performed, Tucker certainly hopes it’s not the last. He plans to continue refining the play’s second act and to get it out to community theaters across the country in time to mark the 50th anniversary of that momentous summer when Civil Rights workers from the north traveled south to register voters and shine a spotlight on the inequalities that were the norm.
If you miss Monday’s reading, Tucker and company will be reprising it at local libraries — Nyack, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m.; Pearl River on an October date TBA; Suffern, Nov. 6 at 1 p.m.; New City, Dec. 4 at 2:30 p.m.; and Spring Valley, Dec. 11 at 2 p.m.
Tucker envisioned “Freedom Summer” as a film, but settled on a play treatment when financing became difficult to secure.
The first act follows two tracks: one in Mississippi and one in a northern university not unlike Amherst College where a young Tucker went. It culminates with those northern students beginning to mobilize to head south and make a difference, with voter-registration drives.
“I still, without any bias, think it was most precisely pivotal turning point in American history, as far as a social situation just changing dramatically in one place,” he says. “The first week I was down there, the three guys were killed, but by the end of the summer, things had changed dramatically and the back of that system was broken. Two or three years later, it was a totally different world.”
“The ’60s really began that summer,” Tucker says. “There were no ’60s in 1963.”
Evidence of that, for Tucker, came when he returned to the Amherst campus after that Freedom Summer, when he first saw a man with shoulder-length hair. “I remember just having these incredible, conflicting churnings in my stomach, like ‘What is going on?’”
What was going on was change.
Tucker wasn’t leading the charge to Mississippi that summer.
“I was more of a hanger on, more of an observer,” he says.
Truth be told, he says he went south, in part, to impress a girl he had recently broken up with. Years later, he was presented with the application he filled out to take part in the registration drive. The girl was listed as a person Tucker wanted notified in case anything happened to him.
The Freedom Summer experience that Tucker hopes to capture in the play was “a bit like going off to summer camp and a bit like going off to war,” he says.
Elmwood Playhouse, 10 Park St., Nyack. 845-353-1313.