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'Blacks in Wax' Program Spotlights Social Justice Activists

Margaret Summers | 3/5/2014, 3 p.m.
The Southeast Tennis & Learning Center held its 8th annual Blacks in Wax program on Feb. 28 at the Community Showcase auditorium in the Eagle Center at McGogney in Southeast. Students portray (from left) Stokely Carmichael (David Patterson), Huey P. Newton (Elijah Ragland), Angela Davis (Ameera Malik) and Ron Maulana Karenga (Marjé Lyons). Photo by Shevry Lassiter

School children and seniors packed the Community Showcase auditorium in the Eagle Center at McGogney in Southeast on a chilly Friday afternoon. They witnessed social giants like Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and others brought back to life, by youth who were not yet born when these legends lived.

More than 200 filed through the doors to see the "tennis scholars" of the Southeast Tennis & Learning Center (SETLC) in the organization's eighth annual Blacks in Wax play on Feb. 28.

SETLC launched Blacks in Wax not long after its 2001 founding. It served as an alternative means for teaching youth about African-American history.

"This is the first time we haven't held Blacks in Wax in our center," noted Cora Masters Barry, CEO and founder of the Recreation Wish List Committee, which was instrumental in SETLC's creation. She told the audience that SETLC is undergoing renovation. Several District community organizations offered their spaces for the event. "But I told them I really wanted to stay in our [neighborhood]," Barry said.

"We talked to the Eagle community center and public charter school, and before we could even explain why we need their space, they said, 'Done.'"

The play, "Souls of the Movement," focused on leaders of civil rights, Black Power, Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism and women's liberation efforts within some of those movements. "We also featured people of other [ethnicities] in the play and 'museum,' who were involved in these [struggles]," Barry said after the play. "Our effort is to tell the true history. I don't like it when [movements' leaders] are not authentically portrayed."

Barry cited as one example a youth of Latino heritage who played Cesar Chavez, the leader of the California farm workers' movement, in the Blacks in Wax "museum" held in the center's gym after the play. The "museum" consisted of young people costumed as animated "wax" historical figures, speaking in character to onlookers about their lives.

"I also wanted to give Bayard Rustin his due recognition," Barry said. Tennis scholar Drai Faulk played Rustin describing his key strategist and organizer roles in the 1963 March on Washington.

The "Souls of the Movement" play opened with three children, "Imani" (played by Rhajzon Rankins), "Saleema" (played by Briana Rwegarulila) and "Cindy" (played by Isabella De Leo) discussing the need for a modern-day social justice movement. They decided to start by exploring similarities and differences between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and their approaches to achieving social justice.

Gradually, other movements' legends took to the stage. "I studied Communism, but I was always down for my people," said "Angela Davis," the African-American and women's rights activist played by Ameera Malik.

Madeleine Katz played Viola Liuzzo, a white woman who joined the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama march for African-American voting rights and was murdered for participating. "My murder led President Johnson to launch an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. You see, my death was not in vain," said Madeleine as Liuzzo.

The Washington Performing Arts Society's Children of Gospel Choir performed inspirational Sixties songs like "We Shall Overcome" as photos of the movements' leaders flashed onto a pair of jumbo video screens on each side of the stage. SETLC scholars acted the stories of the individuals as the corresponding images were projected.

Many seniors and school children in the audience were moved by the experience. Samantha Lassiter, 8, an Eagle Academy Public Charter School third grader from Southeast, said "I learned new information about the Black Panther Party. And everybody [all organizations] worked together to end segregation."

To Queenie Hughes, 72, of Northeast, the play served as an effective educational tool. "I enjoyed the play. It showed things that happened in the Fifties and other times that today's young people don't know about."

Barry said participation in the play boosts performers' self-esteem, especially when they discover that they can memorize long monologues and develop other theatrical skills. "We should hold our children to a higher standard," she said.

The Kennedy Center in Northwest will host a free performance of "Souls of the Movement" on March 9 in its Hall of States from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. A free selection from the play will be performed on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.