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Performing Arts

The cast of “Keep Marching” is currently in rehearsal at the Foundry Theater in preparation for the play’s Jan. 13 and 14 premiere performances. From left, against backdrops created by local artist Migiwa Orimo: Raiford Faircloth, Phillip Lynch, Steven Rice, Sheena O. Murray and Casie McManus. (Photo by Lauren "Chuck" Shows)

Mad River Theater Works to debut March on Washington play

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When Americans consider the historical impact of the 1963 March on Washington, it’s often with respect to its organizers and those who spoke when the one-mile march from the Washington Monument culminated at the Lincoln Memorial. We know about John Lewis and Bayard Rustin, among many others, and the March’s end was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s now-legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

We often know less, however, about what the historic event was like for those on the ground — the thousands who marched in the blazing summer sun, demanding fair wages, voting rights and civil rights protection and an end to segregation for Black Americans.

A new play by Mad River Theater Works, or MRTW, “Keep Marching: The Road to the March on Washington,” aims to delve deeper into the grassroots history of the historic event. The play — aimed at young audiences, but appropriate for all ages — will debut Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 13 and 14, in the Foundry Theater at Antioch College.

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The play represents MRTW’s first production as a company in residence at the Foundry. The cast and crew of “Keep Marching” will embark on a two-month national tour of the production following its Yellow Springs premiere.

Playwright Daniel Carlton— who both wrote and directed MRTW’s 2023 production, “Freedom Flight” — is again at the helm of “Keep Marching.” Carlton told the News this week that the new play grew out of a previous work, “March On,” which he wrote a decade ago, and which has since been performed many times; most recently, in September 2023, an excerpted performance of “March On” was mounted in New York City in recognition of the March on Washington’s 60th anniversary.

“March On” was scripted after Carlton conducted hours of interviews with three people — Don Kelley, Carl Berry and Ellen Frankel — who attended the March on Washington. The production was presented as a staged documentary, incorporating music and imagery from 1963 and the years leading up to the March, as well as readings taken from Carlton’s interviews and other historical sources.

Though “Keep Marching” is built on some of the same sources — it features three young March attendees, based in varying degrees on Kelley, Berry and Frankel — it differs from “March On” in both approach and narrative.

“I wrote characters and relationships [for ‘Keep Marching’] that could interact with the time and the stories of [the interview subjects], so I had more freedom,” Carlton said. “I didn’t want to be locked into what they told me, which I think belongs to ‘March On’ and not to ‘Keep Marching.’”

In addition to augmenting the makeup of the cast of characters, “Keep Marching” includes new songs, with lyrics by Carlton and MRTW Managing Director Chris Westhoff. The music has been synthesized in rehearsal by the play’s performers, under the direction of Dayton-based music educator and choir director Christopher Smith, who is a frequent World House Choir soloist. The production’s set features backdrop art created by local artist Migiwa Orimo.

Carlton also added a narrative framing device to “Keep Marching,” which will move audiences from the present day to the 1960s and back: Here in 2023, two teenagers and their teacher, whose aunt was a participant in the March on Washington, meet with the son of a newspaper reporter who covered the march. The four are scheduled to be guests on a podcast, “Hope For Humanity,” hosted by the grandson of a radio reporter who also covered the march.

Before the podcast interview can start, however, the five characters discuss what activism looked like in the 1960s, and how it looks now. The play shifts, and each of the actors on stage become different characters, playing out their parts in the historic march.

Framing the play in this way, Carlton said, was strategic. By anchoring the narrative in the present day, audience members — particularly the middle youth and teenage demographic at which it’s aimed —  gain a certain immediacy with the play’s historical elements.

“I think the best way for me to present something that’s historical is to give people an open door into it, so they’re not trying to catch up,” Carlton said. “If you ground yourself in a relatable situation, you can take people anywhere, but if they have to catch up to it, they can get lost.”

In this case, the relatable situation for the play’s 21st-century teenage characters is, in part, a pervasive uncertainty and anxiety about how to create change in the world.

“They bring the kids to the podcast, and they’ve been on Twitter or TikTok for so long, they’re just like, ‘There’s no hope,’” Carlton said. “So really what drives the play are two questions: Is hope enough, and what would you do if there was no fear?”

In setting up these questions for the resulting narrative, the play’s younger characters begin by comparing their own experiences to those of their elders.

“At least you had hope,” one young character says. “Things, and kids, are different now.”

“Everybody back then had unity of purpose,” another character responds. “They knew what they wanted, why they wanted it and agreed how to get it done.”

In response, the play’s older characters make the case that those responsible for organizing the March on Washington didn’t agree on every aspect of what activism should look like, or even on the ultimate purpose of the march, but still worked together to form a set of goals, agreeing that “jobs and freedom should be the focus,” as one character says.

“And remember, they made all of that happen without cell phones,” cast member Steven Rice told the News, echoing a line from the play’s press materials: “Decades before a 24-hour news cycle and social media, there was word of mouth.”

For the estimated 250,000 Americans present in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963 — who had been led there, in large part, by word of mouth, as well as posters and fliers — the march was, in many ways, unexplored territory. Some marchers traveled hundreds of miles by bus or train to get to the nation’s capital, and many had little foreknowledge of what to expect when they got there.

“When you’re learning from history books, you’re seeing it in the past tense — it’s already happened,” cast member Phillip Lynch said. “But [in the play] you see it come together through grassroots, hear the different opinions, hear people’s perspective of, ‘What’s going on? Do we even know what’s going on?’”

It’s that perspective — one of both uncertainty and hope from those who would march together — from which the play’s narrative springs.

“I think what’s so special about this play is that it is giving an account [of the march] from everyday people, and not just from the historical figures whose names everybody knows,” cast member Sheena O. Murray said.

“Keep Marching” runs just 55 minutes — a relative necessity within touring theater for young audiences, which must often bend toward the constraints of a school day. Nevertheless, within that time, it aims to present a range of lived experiences, alongside the triumphs that resulted from the historic march and the systemic racism and violence that led to its organization.

With these things in mind, the thespians behind “Keep Marching” believe young audiences have both the capacity and the need to receive not just the highlights of history, but all of its complexities.

“When I was in school, what I learned about the March on Washington was that a bunch of people showed up to hear Martin Luther King speak, and that was that,” Rice said. “But kids today are so emotionally literate — they have language we didn’t have when we were kids, so I think it’s even more important now to give the newer generation a more nuanced account of what went on.”

“And when you put history in real time, it gives it a different feeling,” Murray added.

Cast member Raiford Faircloth said gauging a play’s effect on young audiences can be difficult — “It’s hard to know what the impact is, and you probably never will,” he said. Ultimately, though, the cast said they hope young audiences will not only walk away with a greater understanding of the historical events the play dramatizes, but also of their own worth and power in the present day.

“We still need change in our country — in our world — so I feel like the play could give kids an idea that they can be a spark of change and hope as well,” Murray said.

“And I think kids probably hear a lot of adults that aren’t on the same page as them,” cast member Casie McManus said. “So I hope they hear us say, ‘We got you — we know what you’re going through, and we’re not that removed.’”

“Keep Marching: The Road to the March on Washington” will be performed Saturday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 14, at 2 p.m. Both performances will be staged at the Foundry Theater. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students and those ages 17 and younger. Tickets and show info are available online at bit.ly/FoundryTix.

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