WORCESTER — As one of the original readers last year for “We Grow Into Courage,” a dramatic multimedia presentation telling the early story of women civil rights activists, actor Tina E. Gaffney said she felt “very thankful, grateful, humbled, blessed to tell what these women did — and I hope it will be a clarion call for all of us to continue to interact with each other.”
Regina Edmonds was in the audience when “We Grow Into Courage” was performed at the College of the Holy Cross. She was so impressed and touched by the piece that this year she will be one of the readers.
“We Grow Into Courage” returns for a free presentation at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Colleen C. Barrett Center at Becker College.
“I thought it was very excellent and moving and a celebration of a history that’s been lost to most people in the U.S.,” Edmonds said.
“We Grow Into Courage” is edited and produced by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy as an educational project for the Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester, where she is program director. She also returns as the narrator for the performance.
Gaffney, Edmonds and seven other women will join Schaeffer-Duffy to read from the writings of women who were involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with the abbreviation SNCC but pronounced and generally referred to as “SNICK.”
SNCC was formed in 1960 by leaders of the sit-ins that began on black colleges in the South. It was the only national civil rights organization led by young people and focused on voter registration. SNCC activists, mentored by the legendary organizer Ella Baker, became full-time organizers themselves, working with adult leaders to build grass-roots organizations in the Deep South. Such work was not without great personal physical risks in places of entrenched white supremacy and bigotry.
The texts for “We Grow Into Courage,” with a few exceptions, are excerpted from “Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.” The women “are figures we can all relate to — mothers, business owners, students,” Schaeffer-Duffy said. The presentation also includes songs, slide photographs, audio recordings and music. “It is well-documented,” she said of the story of SNCC and the struggle for voter registration. “People were taking photographs because documentation was so important.”
The combination of powerful readings by the cast and striking images also made a strong impression with an audience at the Worcester Public Library last April and led to lots of QA and discussion afterward.
“I thought at first a well-recognized playwright had put it together,” Edmonds said in praising Schaeffer-Duffy’s creation.
“The intention of the project is to highlight this history and serve as as a creative and educational tool for readers as well as the audience,” Schaeffer-Duffy said.
“Through theater you can reflect on human divisions in a way that is more personal.”
Besides being performed last year at Holy Cross College and the Worcester Public Library, “We Grow Into Courage” was also given a presentation reading to the City of Worcester’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women.
Last year there were five readers, with Gaffney and Schaeffer-Duffy the only returnees as most of the others were students who have now moved on or were unavailable.
The nine readers this year have different ages and perspectives, Schaeffer-Duffy said. Edmonds, who was a member of SNCC, is professor emerita of psychology at Assumption College where she was also the former director of women’s studies. Gaffney is a well-known local actor. Brenda Safford, who is originally from Texas, is associate professor of human services at Quinsigamond Community College, and three of her students are also readers for “We Grow Into Courage.” The full lineup of readers is Gaffney, Edmonds, Safford, Bonnie Johnson, Parlee Jones, Luz Mejia, Elena Novack, Jamilex Rivas and Ann Traganos.
“It will be different because we have the different voices and age groups,” Schaeffer-Duffy said. “What’s very interesting with Brenda Safford, she’s from Texas she has very personal memories of segregation in her town and shared those after the reading (at a rehearsal).”
“Many of us cry as we watch it and read our passages,” Edmonds said. “For me I’m white but I lived through it and it touched me profoundly. I was a college student myself in the early ’60s. I was a member of SNICK. I don’t think I went anywhere, it was just being inspired that people take such risks. It had an impact on the person I became. I’ve tried to fight for social justice for those who don’t have a voice.”
Gaffney said that “as an actor returning for season two of ‘We Grow Into Courage’, a piece such as this truly excites me because it has everything an actor looks for: meticulous direction (by Schaeffer-Duffy), new insights and input from our ensemble members and seeing how impactful of a piece this is. Returning and seeing us (as an ensemble) present the stories of these ‘She-Roes’ who inspire us, all due to the important change work they did, is pure joy as an actor to be able to emote. The most exciting aspect of ‘We Grow Into Courage’ is this: Pieces like this — they change you, strengthen you and become a part of who I am.”
Schaeffer-Duffy said Gaffney is “definitely the (creative) power. She got me to open up the script again.”
There may be performances at other colleges this year, both in Worcester and beyond, Schaeffer-Duffy said.
Last year, “people really responded in all settings. We had an older-generation public at the library. I was curious if the college students would react to this material, and they did. They were definitely touched by the stories,” she said.
They are stories that are “very important for us to hear now because I think we’re having an identity crisis now as a republic,” she said. Schaeffer-Duffy noted that in the recent movie “Marshall,” which focuses on one of the first cases in the career of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, there is a line ” ‘We know this Constitution wasn’t written for us but we’re gonna make it work for us.’ And that is what I think SNICK was doing — ‘We’re going to make this voting right work for us.’ That is what this fight was all about, and that double-clicks from a woman’s perspective.”
“I do think it’s incredibly relevant,” Edmonds said. “Not only was SNICK a youth movement, there are certain similarities to the youth movement we see now.” Looking locally, she said, Worcester was the site of the first national women’s rights convention, and women such as Abby Kelley Foster and Lucy Stone were “advocates for women’s rights but even more importantly the abolitionist movement. It’s important to recognize in Women’s History Month that women have been fighting for the rights of others throughout history.”
Indeed, “We Grow Into Courage” is being presented at Becker College March 21 in honor of Women’s History Month.
“I think everyone in Worcester ought to come,” Edmonds said.
Contact Richard Duckett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TGRDuckett