Roundtable: 'Ordinary Heroes' and the Civil Rights Movement Guests discuss Ordinary Heroes, a play about race relations in Nashville, Tenn., during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. Guests: Ordinary Heroes playwright and News & Notes contributor Jeff Obafemi, and actors Bobby Daniels and Tom Mason.

Roundtable: 'Ordinary Heroes' and the Civil Rights Movement

Roundtable: 'Ordinary Heroes' and the Civil Rights Movement

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Guests discuss Ordinary Heroes, a play about race relations in Nashville, Tenn., during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. Guests: Ordinary Heroes playwright and News & Notes contributor Jeff Obafemi, and actors Bobby Daniels and Tom Mason.

TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Today on a special Roundtable, we offer an intimate perspective on black history. The South was the birthplace of one of the most defining movements of our time, the Civil Rights Movement. Many cities in that region were home to events where distinctive changes were made by men and women of note, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Nashville, Tennessee was no different as a place that helped groomed the movement. A new play focuses on the role of that city and the nameless foot soldiers behind it. It's titled "Ordinary Heroes," and was penned by playwright and NEWS & NOTES regular contributor, Jeff Obafemi-Carr. He along with actors from the production, Bobby Daniels and Tom Mason, spoke to with NPR's Farai Chideya about the significance of the play.

We should mention in the course of discussing race in this context, there is language and content that may offend some listeners.

FARAI CHIDEYA: This project is the product of two contemporary theaters - one black, one white - how did you decide to work together on this?

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI-CARR (Playwright, Wrote "Ordinary Heroes"): Actually, we had gotten in the midst of working on a lot of projects on Amen-Ra's behalf, and that's the theater that I'm the artistic director of. And I got approached by Vali Forrister and Bill Feehely who run Actor's Bridge Ensemble in Nashville.

And they had read David Halberstam's book, "The Children," which details Nashville's role in the civil rights movement. Vali was a Nashvillian(ph), I was a Nashvillian, Bill was from up North. And he was surprised he hadn't heard of Nashville's importance in the movement.

So we all talked and they said this would be a great play but we wouldn't want to just try to do it as a white theater company and just kind of approach it with a kind of paternalistic attitude. So we want this to be real and we want it to be honest. And we spent almost two years talking to individuals and digging up individual stories on the movement, and taking that and putting it along with a historic timeline so that we have both the docudrama element of a play and some uncovered stories that are really pretty fascinating.

CHIDEYA: So give us a little bit more of a taste of what the scenario is for this specific play?

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: "Ordinary Heroes" details the stories that took place in Nashville around the late 50s and early 60s. The sit-in movement actually started three months before the four African-American college students staged the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. They happened here in the fall of 1959.

Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis - who later became a congressman - as well as Jim Lawson who was a divinity student here at Vanderbilt. They got together as students from Fisk, and Tennessee State, and American Baptist College, and really launched a movement to bring down the walls of segregation here.

Nashville was one of the first cities to pull down those colored and white signs. And this play actually talks about not only those historic facts, but it talks about the lesser known foot soldiers who were witnesses to the movement, who participated in the movement, and did so in a number of ways. So we hear it through historic narrative, oral narrative. We hear it through poetry, through music and through multimedia - to hear this story told.

CHIDEYA: Well, you brought along two of your actors - Bobby Daniels, who is African-American, and Tom Mason, who's white. Why don't you give us just a little teaser of who they're playing and let them take it away.

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: Their two characters who are the amalgamation of a couple of stories. Tom is going to be reading a particular story of a minister who came to Nashville for a visit. Bobby is going to be reading a story of a man who had an encounter in Nashville, that we got from a barbershop, that he had never told before. And by the time he finished telling the story he was in tears.

So one is joy, one is sadness. And it's a story about fear.

Mr. BOBBY DANIELS and Mr. TOM MASON (Actors): Fear.

Mr. DANIELS: Fear is so powerful.

Mr. MASON: Fear is silly.

Mr. DANIELS: There's something to be said about the nature of fear. I get afraid sometimes. I'll never forget this one time in particular because fear was so powerful.

Mr. MASON: There's something to be said about the nature of fear. I get afraid sometimes. I'll never forget this one time in particular because fear was so silly.

Mr. DANIELS: I was driving down a country road with my wife and two-year-old son in the car and we were headed home from church. We both sang in the choir. I remember being so thankful to be riding with such a beautiful woman and such a lovely brown-skinned bundle of joy that looked like me.

Mr. MASON: I was attending a conference with a good friend of mine who was in town to discuss bringing black and white churches together. Although it shouldn't matter, he was a man of color. Very, as he would say, light-skinned. I was staying over in a dormitory on campus that was segregated, although I didn't know it at the time.

Mr. DANIELS: We were driving down this dark stretch, not speeding but moving along home when we passed this police car. A moment after we passed, the blue lights came on.

Mr. MASON: We had to stop by the dorm to pick up some of my things. We walked passed the security guard in the lobby. He spoke to us without even looking up and we went upstairs.

Mr. DANIELS: I pulled over and got my license ready. I knew better than to ask what the problem was because he didn't need a problem, I was on his time. He leaned in the window, looked at me, looked at my wife, looked at my child, told me to get out of the car and to hurry up and not to waste his time.

Mr. MASON: As we were coming down, looking at the clock in the lobby, I saw that we actually had some time to kill before it was time to go to our next workshop on the church finding its voice in the movement.

Mr. DANIELS: After repeated questioning, I told him that we were just coming home from choir rehearsal. He asked me if I had any weapons. I told him no, but he made me pull my pants down to my knees and stand with my hands in the air.

Mr. MASON: I didn't know what to do. I didn't have any idea what was in the area so I just threw my hands up and shook my head. Maybe we could just sit down and talk about the church's voice in the liberation struggle.

Mr. DANIELS: After looking back at my family, that policeman walked up to me…

Mr. MASON: That's when I noticed there was a ping-pong table across the room. We walked over…

Mr. DANIELS: …he grabbed my testicles in a death grip…

Mr. MASON: …and grabbed a couple of balls…

Mr. DANIELS: …told me to wipe off my mouth…

Mr. MASON: …wiped off some paddles…

Mr. DANIELS: …and he made me sing the national anthem…

Mr. MASON: …and we played a pretty fierce game of ping-pong…

Mr. DANIELS: …right there in front of my wife and young child…

Mr. MASON: …right there in front of that security guard.

Mr. DANIELS: …as she tried to shield their eyes.

Mr. MASON: Who looked up every now and then, no problem.

Mr. DANIELS: It was to him, an act of dominance.

Mr. MASON: It was to him just a couple of white guys playing ping-pong.

Mr. DANIELS: When I finished, he laughed. Told me to be careful and got in his car. I never even looked at my wife and child as we drove home.

Mr. MASON: When we got through, we went over to the workshop, had a wonderful session. Then I saw him off and we went back to the dorm.

Mr. DANIELS: After everyone had gotten cleaned up and gone up to bed, I took a lot longer shower than usual that night. I crawled into bed next to my wife.

Mr. MASON: As I was coming through the lobby after a tiring session, the security guard called me over to him.

Mr. DANIELS: My wife asked me, obviously she'd been meditating on it, do we need to report that incident to someone, baby?

Mr. MASON: He asked me, obviously he'd been meditating on it, that fellah you were with earlier, was he a nigger?

Mr. DANIELS: I saw the fear in her eyes and I felt helpless to disarm it.

Mr. MASON: I saw the fear in his eyes and I wanted to laugh to disarm it.

Mr. DANIELS: I smiled a weak smile and said…

Mr. MASON: I smiled a weak smile and said…

Mr. DANIELS: …even if I did tell, what difference would it make?

Mr. MASON: …if you can't tell, what difference does it make?

Mr. DANIELS: And I rolled over and wept silently.

Mr. MASON: And I went back to my room in silence.

Mr. DANIELS and Mr. MASON: So, I can tell you, honestly fear can be so powerful, silly.

Mr. DANIELS: Now you tell me how can I tell that story to my children and friends?

Mr. MASON: How can I not tell that story to my children and friends?

CHIDEYA: That was very powerful, gentlemen. And it's very much like a tone poem in a way. Bobby Daniels and Tom Mason. Bobby, first. What does it feel like to read that?

Mr. DANIELS: Oh, we did three readings on this last year. And the first one, for me, the first reading stirred a lot of old things. My father's family is from Greenville, North Carolina, and I integrated a school over there. And it just brought back a lot of those feelings from that day. I remember we did a Q and A after the first reading, and there was some people actually there from North Carolina.

And I'll never forget going into this restaurant that they had a colored only sign that you ate around the side. And when the civil rights bill was signed, this band I was working with at the time, we went in to eat. And the essence of the story was is that they came up and served me but they didn't serve the white guys in the group. And they said, look, the law says we got to serve this nigger, but we don't have to serve nigger lovers.


Mr. DANIELS: So it flushed up a lot of old memories. And as we speak of it in that same city, they just set fire to two churches, unexplained.

CHIDEYA: Tom, what does it stir up for you?

Mr. MASON: Well, Bo is talking about the first time it was read. And in the first reading we did another actor read the part that I'm reading. So I was just blown away by it. It's easy for the white actor to say (unintelligible) is silly, I think, you know. And in this case it obviously was. And put in the position of a black man who was being pulled over, it's a totally different beast.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, is the scene that we just heard a turning point in the play?

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: Yes, it actually is. It is the end of the first act. The first act is actually about history, and it gives us the emotional kind of slingshot into the second act, which gives us the energy into the students at that time and the regular people in the community to do something and make something happen. And at the end of that scene is a soloist that sings with an accompanying chorus, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul. There's a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.

CHIDEYA: Tom and then Bobby, why was it important for you to be in this work? And what do you think that you're giving to the audience and getting from it?

Mr. MASON: I moved to a Nashville about 13 years ago. And I have come from Chicago, which was, to me, felt a lot more integrated. But I came to Nashville and embraced it and tried to study up as much as I could on the history. But there obviously weren't those signs anymore, the signs of apartheid here, the colored and white. And it was a changed place. And I wanted to see what, you know, I'm discovering so much through this play about what Nashville used to be like.

CHIDEYA: Bobby, has the South changed and in what ways to you?

Mr. DANIELS: Well, you know, I gave you just a snippet earlier about two church fires that really, you know, it just - that happened a day or so before Dr. King's birthday. So, I mean, has it changed?

I grew up between Philadelphia and North Carolina. That was quite a jolt anyway for a child, you know. You came from the tough streets of Philly back, you know, the house that I lived in the North Carolina in the early years, the street was a dirt road, you know.

But I think there has been a lot of change, yes. But Lord, we've got a long way to go still. And those fires, and a couple of vandalisms that happen with other churches in that area, I don't know if that was in response for that area to Dr. King's celebration.

But you didn't ask this, but I think for me having traveled a lot around the country, you know, with music here and there, there's a lot about this that I've learned about Nashville that I didn't know. I knew about other areas. I knew about Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi. I knew about the hidden places, Boston, you know, Massachusetts was as tough as Mississippi.

You know, one of the common jokes in the South used to be that there was an African-American found dead in the Mississippi with 250 pounds of chains around him, 14 gunshots in the back of the head, and it was the worst case of suicide the city had ever seen. So it's changed from that, but there's a long way to go.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, there are a lot of different ways to give to the world. Some people put their lives on the line during the civil rights movement. Some people still put their lives on the line for human rights. It can seem from the outside that being a playwright and being an artist is not the most direct way to change the world. How do you believe that this work defies that, or do you?

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: I believe it defies it. I've long considered myself to be a weaver of dreams. And I say that because artists are responsible for the very fiber in the tapestry of everybody's dreams. There are kids who want to doctors because they saw "ER." Other people wanted to be lawyers or cops because they watch "Law and Order." And these are artists who put these things together. They're people who feel pride because they hear a certain song or because their father used to recite poetry.

These are things that inspire us. So I think artists are the very foundation of civilization even though we kind of get kicked to the side a lot. And sure there's some good things that we do, there's some kind of negative things that we can do because we can inspire people to do crazy things, too. But I think it's definitely our responsibility to not only comment on society and where it is, but to create the world and conceive the new world that people will strive to.

So that when they're saying in the world, brother, brother, we don't need to escalate, war is not the answer, only love can conquer hate, who doesn't know that line? Who doesn't feel that when Marvin sings it? These are the powerful gifts that artists have. So I see it as a huge responsibility. And I see it as just as important as the politician, just as important as the scientist, because everyone in that world will eventually gain inspiration from something that an artist put together.

So I think it's a huge responsibility, and I think this play is the first play of its kind in Nashville that kind of talks about the history of Nashville. And there are schools that are coming out to see it, fourth grade all the way through high school. There are different civic and social groups that are coming. Fisk University, a historically black college, is sponsoring this with their Race Relations Institute. And so is David Lipscomb University, a very conservative, predominantly white Church of Christ institution who, at the time the events in the play were going on, weren't letting black students in.

So I think it speaks a lot to the nature of what art can do when applied in a right and proper way.

CHIDEYA: Well, we certainly wish you good luck in spreading your word. Jeff Obafemi-Carr, Bobby Daniels, Tom Mason, thank you so much.

Mr. DANIELS: Thank you.

Mr. MASON: Thank you.

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: Thank you for having us.

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COX: That was playwright and NEWS & NOTES regular contributor Jeff Obafemi-Carr, along with actors Bobby Daniels and Tom Mason from Carr's production, "Ordinary Heroes." They spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

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COX: Next on NEWS & NOTES, Harlem speaks and has got quite a bit to say. And we visit the biggest archive of Marcus Garvey material in the known world.

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