Actor Marrietta Hedges on Selma ’65 and her characters Viola Liuzzo and Tommy Rowe.

 mariettahedgesheadshot

 In Summer of 2009, Hedges met playwright Catherine Filloux while participating in a panel for women involved in socio-political theatre making at the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Since then they’ve worked together on a staged reading Killing the Boss, presented as a reading at the Amnesty International Arts festival in 2010.

   In Spring of 2011, Hedges traveled to Alabama to participate in another conference. During this visit she decided to do a “Civil Rights Tour” of sorts, traveling to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham. While in Montgomery, Hedges visited the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). As the organization’s website states, the SPLC is “A nonprofit civil rights organization dedicating to fighting hate a bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society” by exposing hate groups. While visiting the organization, Hedges also visited their Civil Rights Memorial, which is directly around the corner from the capitol steps where the march from Selma to Montgomery ended on March 25, 1965. The memorial is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the struggle for Civil Rights. The list of martyrs can be found on the organizations website here (http://www.splcenter.org/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs).

   During a tour of the memorial, Hedges was struck by the story of Viola Liuzzo, the only activist in the exhibit who was both female and white. Liuzzo eventually became the inspiration for Selma ’65. The story of Liuzzo’s death by Ku Klux Klan members who drove up beside her after the march to Selma and shot her in the head stayed with Hedges. She counts among the reasons for this that her story was so unknown and the dramatic nature of the moment of her death.

    During the exhibit it was mentioned that in testimonies of her murder trial that the suspects recounted Liuzzo was singing “We Shall Over Come” while driving and that when the Klansmen drove up next to her, she looked them directly in the eye.

   “She looked them right in the eye right before they shot her.” Hedges explains. “She knew she was going to die, I’m sure she must have been terrified but at that last minute she made this decision to just show her face to her killers. There is something very brave and political in nature in showing them the face. This is who I am. You’re killing a real person.” To complicate things further, an informant of the FBI was one of the accused Klansmen in the car. Liuzzo’s story affected Hedges to such an extent that she returned to D.C., in March of 2011,  researched more information about Liuzzo and contacted Catherine Filloux shortly after. Within a few months, they decided to begin work on Selma ’65.  

   In one-person Selma ’65, Hedges portrays both Liuzzo and Tommy Rowe, both victim and someone who witnessed her death. The characters, as shown in Selma ’65, have some similarities that ended up balancing the story. And they had several similar commonalities: both born in the south, both had five kids and 3 marriages. Both were estranged from one of their daughters for a time. The following is Hedges perspective on the character’s that she’ll be portraying:

   “I love these two characters. They are both very complicated -Vi [Viola] is not a saint just because she died for the cause – she had faults and took certain actions/did things in her life that negatively affected people. But she was also a woman very ahead of her time-a second wave feminist before second wave feminism and quite brave to go to Selma all by herself.”

Hedges had a similar balanced view on Rowe..

  “Tommy Rowe is not ‘evil.’ He was in part a victim of the FBI who used him and did not stop violence against civil rights workers – violence they knew would happen based on his reports. Yes he joined the Klan as an informant but he said he thought the Klan was stupid. Neither character is black or white but very complicated which is why I’m enjoying working on them so much. Vi walked the walk-she didn’t just talk social justice – she acted, and died as a result. And Tommy Rowe really just wanted to be involved in law enforcement and he worked very hard and his work was very diligent-his work as an informant. His life was ruined -in part by the FBI which kind of turned on him.”

   Back in October 2013, Hedges and Filloux came together for a workshop at New York’s Culturehub, “an incubator for arts and technology” that was founded by La MaMa. The work was part of of the CoLab education programming at Culturehub. Filloux and Hedges did two workshops October 9 and 16, 2013 with youth from University Settlement in New York City and, through telepresence, with the Freedom Foundation in Selma, Alabama, and University of South Carolina-Lancaster, surrounding the performance of a segment of SELMA ’65. Reverend Richard D. Leonard, who marched the entire Selma Voting March, and wrote the book Call to Selma, was a guest speaker. The workshops consisted of writing workshops and discussions about past and present day issues with voting rights and racism in the south, specifically Selma.

   

   This was the first time Hedges had performed a piece of the play for an audience. Prior to that, any performance had been in either Filloux’s or Hedges’s living rooms. Through the benefit of telepresence technology, the first audience of this first performance was viewed by different generations, races and physical locations through a teleconference between Selma, Alabama, Lancaster, South Carolina, and New York City. According to Hedges, through this experience one of the main goals of the project was accomplished

   

   “To have a conversation about civil rights, voting rights, [and] women’s rights. Huge issues because we all see a backlash against them,” says Hedges.

   

   Hedges elaborated to explain that this was also a mix of students who knew about certain issues, and others who were just coming to learn about the extent of some of the challenges at hand in civil rights work. She believed this workshop to be “a great way of using art to educate and open up a dialogue.” Another highlight of the workshop for Hedges included watching Filloux work with students on personal writing reflections on challenges they face in their day to day lives.  Hedges cited that it was a “great experience as an artist, activist, and as a teacher.”

   When anticipating the play itself, Hedges had a few thoughts. She hopes that, like the workshop, it has a deep impact on some of the audience. She cites one African American youth who broke down and cried thanking the work because it helped her understand her heritage and history.

   “My hope is that they would feel impacted [by the play],” Hedges explains. “Is it going to make them learn more about the history of the Civil rights movement? About Feminism? The Civil rights act that Viola literally died for? I would hope that it had some lasting effect on them beyond the theatre.”

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