“My babies came through,” director Jacqueline Thompson said of her cast following the opening night performance of “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.” She sounded like a proud mama. She helmed the co-presentation between the Black Rep and COCA that featured more than 20 African-American girls under the age of 18 charged with adding insight to a tragic moment in American history. So, in a way, she was.
The dramatic musical that focuses on the lives of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing – as opposed to their deaths – debuted Friday, October 18 with the distinction of being the first production staged at COCA’s new Staenberg Performance Lab studio theater. It will be a tough act to follow.
When the show was over, Jennifer Wintzer, recently appointed artistic director of Theatre for COCA, had to put her hand on her chest and take a deep breath to get her emotions in check before asking the audience to stay for a post-show discussion.
As the lights came up, audience members wiped away tears and gathered themselves enough to be able to talk about how wonderful the production was and the impact of seeing the children as the young girls they were before they became martyrs of the movement. The production was stunning from start to finish. The audience was actually affected before the start of the play. And “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” was even more awe-inspiring considering the play was not only led by youth on stage, but also by a host of young people behind the scenes. The production staff of young people oversaw the technical elements that included sound, lights and imagery thanks to a partnership with The Black Rep, COCA and The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis’ Teen Empowerment Center.
As the audience for the sold-out opener filed in, the four girls in the four title roles sat gracefully in wooden chairs. Nia “RJ” Hearon (as Addie Mae Collins), Gilayah Mcintosh (as Carole Robertson), Kaitlin Oliver (as Cynthia Wesley) and Lena Williams (as Denise McNair) ranged in age from high school sophomore to fifth grade. +They never broke from the stoic position that had them seated with their ankles and wrists crossed for the 15 minutes from when the house opened until the show commenced. The moment was a sign of what was to come as they – along with the invaluable assistance of two dozen young girls (and adult actors Erin Feldman and Bryce Miller) – brought the words of Christina Ham’s play to life. “Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963” also incorporated a robust selection of gospel songs and Civil Rights Movement hymns that they sang in perfect harmony while transitioning chairs with military precision to transform them into church pews, classrooms and living rooms.
These young girls embodied every element of the moment in 1963 Birmingham – from the ribbons in their pressed hair and starched dresses with black Mary Jane shoes and white ruffled ankle socks to the Southern accents. And they conveyed the turmoil of the movement as they discussed what was happening around them – and how their families attempted to protect them by not allowing them to join the protests.
Daughters of the segregated middle class and upper middle class of Birmingham, the girls’ parents worked to shield them from the front lines.
Their tragic deaths lend truth to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But through the play, the audience also experienced the added heartache that comes in seeing the girls work diligently towards their future – and their delight and anticipation and wonder regarding growing into the women they were never allowed to become. They were girls with dreams. Girls who had crushes on boys. Girls who argued with their sisters about sharing clothes. Girls who loved their parents, church and community. Girls already in pursuit of their professions. Girls who imagined an America beyond the racist reality of their time. They were little black girls with lives that mattered.