A Musical Tribute To King Is 'A Psalm Of Freedom'

January 16, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

Ted Cooper of Annapolis remembers shuttling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. around Washington as thousands of civil rights demonstrators camped in tents on the mall. He vividly recalls the firestorm unleashed onthe streets of Washington when King was assassinated.

But the Howard University drama professor and director never thought about staging a tribute to King until he stumbled across the soundtrack of a play called "Selma" in an Annapolis used record store.

"I realized after a while that changing the order of the music makes it a story. I said, 'My God, we've got a show here.' "

An abbreviated version of that show is being presented this week in Washington and Virginia by Cooper's theater company, Pamoja, as part of the National Park Service's commemoration of Martin Luther King Day.

"APsalm of Freedom" will be presented at 10 a.m. today and tomorrow atthe Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington and at 10 a.m. Friday at the U.S. Geological Survey's National Center in Reston, Va.

It's a musical tribute that begins at the end, with King's death in Memphis, Tenn. The action then returns to the beginning of King's work as a civil rights leader with the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. The show follows King to the 1965 march in Selma, Ala., and his arrest there.

Pamoja, the Swahili word for "unity," has been performing "A Psalm of Freedom" since 1986, when the group was called New Wave of Entertainment. For its efforts, the group received the Dr. Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award from the Annapolis Human Relations Commission in 1988.

The original show writtenby Tommy Butler -- whom Cooper has never been able to locate -- ran four hours with a 35-member cast. For his production, Cooper trimmed the show to one hour, 15 minutes and a cast of five.

The set is stripped to the essentials: Two chairs, a high stool and two boxes. Over the years, Cooper said he's become something of an expert on lean theater.

"Ever since I was a freshman at Howard, we never had the luxury of big theater companies. We had to make do with what we had. You never say never. Just do it. Don't get hung up on the lights and the sets, put the emphasis on the actors."

The actress who plays Rosa Parks, the woman who set the Montgomery bus boycott in motion by refusing to yield her seat to a white woman, also plays King's wife, Coretta Scott King.

The show is done entirely in song, except for King's speeches, delivered by Richard O. Jackson of Washington. "A Psalm of Freedom" ends as King has decided to travel to Memphis, Tenn., to support a local garbage collectors' strike. He was shot to death on a motel balcony there on April 4, 1968.

King has the show's lastwords, thinking aloud about his own death:

"You see, I won't mindgoing because where I'm going I'm going to have a lot of friends, like Jamie Lee Jackson, Medger Evers, Malcolm X, John Kennedy, the fourchildren killed in that church. So you see, I won't be alone, I won't be alone."

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