Sometimes the most poignant stories are the real ones, the accounts of events that actually transpired. The most powerful mode of expression is not through the endless search of the imagination for the most outlandish, mind-bending fantasy, but through the retelling of historic figure’s stories—from the infamous to the least well known. The same can be said of the Oct. 8 performance of Catherine Filloux’s “Selma ’65” in the SCC Theater, which finds a way to recount events that are hardly remembered, despite their importance to history.
“Selma ’65” follows the lives of two characters, Viola Liuzzo and an FBI informant, whose lives intersect amid the charged climate that resided in Selma, AL, in 1965. The play centers around the gruesome murder of Liuzzo, a white woman and activist, and Tommy Rowe, a paid FBI informant. Liuzzo plays an instrumental role in the March to Montgomery in the play, at which point the KKK decided to target her as an aggressor to white supremacy. The gut-wrenching storyline, which speaks even more to an audience well-acquainted with the various incidents of police brutality against African-Americans over the past year, requires a harsh return to the all-too-visible signs of racial prejudice, as they existed then, and as they still exist today.
The one-woman play is laden with rich, arresting images of violence and brutality as they occurred in the 1960s in America, when Jim Crow laws ruled supreme and were the ultimate representation of inequality in that time. The backdrop of the performance fully disclosed the menacing and dark nature of the time with gnarled, twisted trees, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the deeply troubled time. That, combined with costume designer Suttirat Larlarb’s use of simple accessories, effectively paints the both desperate and hopeful quality surrounding the Selma marches.
Actress Marietta Hedges, was challenged to fully encompass the likeness of two characters who just happen to have wound up in opposite predicaments, though their stories still merge. An added element that goes without mention is that Hedges had to switch genders throughout her performance, which is infrequent in stage theatre. In her opinion, this represents a unique opportunity: “Additionally, playing both Viola and Tommy will make for exciting theatrical storytelling, affording me the chance to play a man’s role. Women are still fighting for parity in the American theater. And it is time our profession, which encourages men to play women’s roles, extends the same artistic challenge to its female artists.”
Having premiered earlier in Sept. 2014 for a 16-performance run at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City, “Selma ’65” is a relatively new play. Its success banks on its use of perspective with intermittent flashbacks between the two main characters, both of which give completely different understandings of the struggles evident in the ’60s. Both Rowe and Liuzzo are incredibly dynamic characters, thanks to the Hedge’s ingenious portrayal and diligence toward her craft. She powerfully conveys the youthful optimism that they both possess amid a world of rapid social change, sketching a rather complex and layered depiction of both Rowe and Liuzzo overall.
As a playwright, Filloux has an extensive collection of award-winning and critically acclaimed work precedes her. For the past 20 years, Filloux’s intrinsic passion for social justice has permeated her work, some of which includes “Luz,” “Dog and Wolf,” “Lemkin’s House,” “Killing the Boss,” “The Beauty Inside,” “Eyes of the Heart,” “Silence of God” and “Mary and Myra.” She has written works for the Vienna State Opera House, Book Wings Iraq, Contemporary American Theater Festival and the Houston Grand Opera and is also featured in the documentary film “Acting Together on the World Stage.”
Her years of experience writing plays shows throughout “Selma ’65,” directed by Eleanor Holdridge, and shows a playwright at the peak of her craft. In an interview, she was reported to have said, “As an actress whose work focuses on socio-political issues, Viola’s story is of the kind I want to tell,” she said. “It’s one with a strong female protagonist and compelling civic issues. I quickly learned that few knew of this woman and the man at the center of her death, an undercover FBI informant, Gary Thomas Rowe (Tommy). We hear so much about the martyred men of the movement, African-American and white, but very little of the contribution made by women.” Her words bring to mind the power in storytelling, and the numerous ways that playwrights can illuminate broader social issues through their craft. All in all, “Selma ’65” is a performance that reacquaints audience with a story that should be told.