Performing Arts

Civil rights icon comes to life in play

What most people know about Rosa Parks begins and ends with what happened on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in December 1955, when Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.

Few know that Parks was already a civil rights activist, that later in life she worked on the staff of a Michigan congressman, and that her widely-reported response when asked to relinquish her bus seat — “feet tired” — is a myth.

Mills Lawn music teacher Jo Frannye Reichert, who will play the role of Parks in an upcoming theatrical production, hopes the show clears some of these misconceptions and gives the audience a greater appreciation for Parks’ life.

“A lot of people think of Rosa Parks in conjunction with Martin Luther King, Jr. and don’t know a lot about Rosa Parks herself,” Reichert said this week. “When we were kids, we were told that she said ‘feet tired,’ but she was a very proper, well-spoken and educated person. I think she told them that she would not move.”

Reichert plays Parks in Walk On: The Rosa Parks Story, a travelling musical that begins a six-week Mad River Theater Works national tour with a performance at Mills Lawn Elementary School at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12. Tickets are $5 per person and $20 for families, with part of the proceeds benefiting art programming at Mills Lawn.

Parks is rightly remembered as a civil rights icon. Her act of civil disobedience sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and led to the eventual desegregation of city buses, a major and early victory of the civil rights movement. The original play, written by Yellow Spring native Jeff Hooper, delves deeper into Parks’ childhood (the show begins when she is 10 years old), explores her struggles with racial identity (her father was a very light-skinned black man), and follows her through her evolution as an activist (she was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter).

Hooper, who also founded Mad River Theater Works, said he wrote the play to shed light on Parks’ early life.

“She was a very determined activist leading up to the time when she refused to give up her seat at the bus,” Hooper said. “The way it’s presented is it was this spontaneous thing, that she was tired and didn’t want to give up her seat. That’s not the case, it was a deliberate act. There was a long history leading up to that moment.”

The son of Bill Hooper and Center Stage director Jean Hooper, Jeff Hooper drew from his memories of the local civil rights movement, especially efforts to desegregate the Gegner barbershop, in writing the play in 2007, he said. Hooper immediately thought that Reichert, who he knew from Center Stage plays, would be perfect for the part, and wrote it with her in mind.

“She suits [the part] so well,” Hooper said of Reichert. “It’s sort of what she looks like and the fact that she’s very petite but packs a real punch.”

Reichert, who has taught K-4 music and fifth and sixth-grade choir at Mills Lawn for six years, is returning to her acting roots with the role. A longtime villager who has lived here since 1962, Reichert, 52, received a theater degree from the University of Dayton, was a part of the Human Race Theater Company in Dayton, performed at Center Stage in Yellow Springs and the Dayton Playhouse, and won a local award for best actress in a musical for her role in A Chorus Line. It will be Reichert’s third time performing the part.

To Reichert, Parks remains such a prominent figure in American history “because this was someone who protested by nonviolence, she didn’t call anyone names, no invective, no lashing out,” Reichert said. “She finally made her stand by sitting down as was her right and saying, ‘This is it. I’m a human being, too. I’m not going to do that.’”

Reichert said she is honored to once again play Parks and she’s grateful that the Yellow Springs schools granted her an unpaid leave to travel the country with the production, which will hit 18 cities in 12 states from Texas to Wisconsin to Massachusetts. Mills Lawn Principal Matt Housh said he sees Reichert’s leave as professional development.

“We recognized that lifelong learning and professional goals can reach beyond the school walls,” Housh said. “Where a teacher has an opportunity to pursue professional acting, and that impacts her classroom and can enrich her as a teacher and enrich her students, to me it’s a win-win. We’re supporting one of our teachers but that supports what we’re doing here.”

Housh said he hopes many Mills Lawn students and their families come out to the show, which launches a school-wide study of civil rights that continues with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and into February, black history month. By watching their own teacher in the Rosa Parks’ play, students might be able to connect more with the activist, Housh said.

Reichert said she also believes the show is highly educational. She always hears interesting reactions from the show’s predominantly white audiences, who are sometimes surprised at how blacks were treated not so long ago.

“Certainly [the audience] will leave with a better understanding of, or at least an introduction to, race relations from many, many years ago and that are still bubbling under the surface today,” Reichert said. “It gives them a chance to see and hear how races related to each other.”

The show runs for 55 minutes and a question-and-answer session follows.

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