By Donovan Thomas, News Editor
Corisa Myers hesitantly suggests a cue change while going over her lines during a rehearsal the day before opening night.
“What do I say about suggestions? I welcome them. Whatever will make this play better,” says producer and director Courtney Baker-Oliver.
“Standby!” is yelled from the soundboard.
The stage lights dim and Myers readies herself for a scene in which she plays the role of Sarah, Viola Liuzzo’s best friend.
Liuzzo was a white housewife who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan after traveling down south to join the Civil Rights Movement. Sarah is of one Myers’ roles within the play “Veils.”
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less afraid of letting people behind the scenes. It is important to peel back the curtain and let people see the hard work. It doesn’t happen by osmosis,” says Baker-Oliver.
“Veils” tells the stories of the women behind those lost to acts of violence and bigotry during the Civil Rights Movement. From Myrlie Evers to Rita Schwerner to Lorena Ware, “Veils” taps into the stories of women whose pain and loss were overlooked and unreported.
“All through the 60s, gunshots stalked the night,” says Andrea Gerald while playing the role of Alberta King.
The era of racial terror from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century saw the lives of countless African Americans violently murdered as they struggled to gain rights in this country. According to a 2015 report released by the Equal Justice Initiative, the South saw 3,959 victims of lynchings from 1877 to 1950.
For many of the actors, the raw emotions that the play taps into were all too familiar.
“I am a mother of two sons as Sybrina Fulton was before Trayvon was taken from her. Every day, I discover something that makes me more connected. There is no need to really act. It is more living and reconnecting and staying aware. It just lives inside of your gut, that feeling of urgency,” says Roz White.
White plays the roles of Myrlie Evers, the late widow of Medger Ever and Sybrina Fulton, mother of the late Trayvon Martin.
“Here in 2020 were are still wrestling through the pain and the trauma of what we experienced. I believe it actually implanted in our DNA as well. With this show, in a sense, I think that it is healing and therapeutic for those of us in the show as well as audience members,” says Desiré DuBose, who plays the role of Yemaya.
DuBose’s role did not always exist in such a capacity, however.
After a successful run in a ten-minute play festival in New York, Steven A. Butler Jr., “Veils” playwright searched for ways to expand the show after being accepted into a festival with an hour log minimum for its participants.
“I picked Yemaya, who is the mother of water, the mother of women, the protector of children and it made sense for where we were going with this storyline,” says Steven A Butler Jr.
This addition though did not come without careful consideration.
“Most of us are African Americans who were raised in the Christian faith. I was very hesitant about going somewhere that wasn’t Christian-based. I tried to do my best to merge the Yoruba and Christian faiths. I wanted to introduce it [the Yoruba religion] to my audiences,” says Butler Jr.
For DuBose, the role was in part a genealogical journey.
“I started with this project some years ago. The story has evolved. Now, I am playing the character named Yemaya who is of the Yoruba faith. I was able to trace some of my family roots and found out that, before the Middle Passage, my family was from West Africa and were of the Yoruba faith and from a place called Yorubaland,” says DuBose.
Kandace Foreman who plays the role of Fannie Lee Chaney, whose son James Chaney was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the infamous “Mississippi Burning” case, speaks of her family’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
“My grandfather who is now deceased lived in Lake Charles, Louisiana and he made my mother integrate the first white high school there. My uncles remember staying up at night with a shotgun after they burned a cross in the yard because they didn’t want her to go to school. So, I had some personal history to draw from,” says Foreman.
She chokes back tears as she recalls the hatred that her family and many other African Americans experienced while fighting for equal rights.
“I can’t imagine someone having that much hate in their body. I can’t imagine,” says Foreman.
Her testimony served as a reminder for those in the room of the importance of knowing one’s history.
“Those of us who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Too many people don’t truly have a sense of what has been fought for,” says Baker-Oliver.
Lesser-known stories, like that of Henry T. Moore and Virgil Ware, were also showcased. Moore and his wife Harriette Vyda Simms Moore were murdered on Christmas day in 1951 after Ku Klux Klan members placed a bomb under their home. He was the first NAACP member and official to be assassinated for civil rights activism. Virgil Ware, a 13-year-old boy was gunned down the day four girls died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Baker-Oliver, Butler Jr., DuBose, White and other members of the cast and crew are Howard University alumni.
Due to the play being very well-received, the production was invited to Los Angeles to run in the Nate Holden Center for the Performing Arts.
“This play does a wonderful job merging that which came before, pointing out that it didn’t ever really end and hopefully, provides some direction we can take to navigate through these very difficult days we are living in,” says Baker-Oliver.