A history lesson on stage

Center Stage commemorates landmark school ruling

May 03, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Center Stage retreats half a century tonight with a fascinating commemoration of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling outlawing segregation in public schools.

The presentation will intertwine oral arguments made before the court, newspaper coverage and the perspective of students today.

"We are referring to it as a commemorative reading," says director Gavin Witt. "It is not a celebration, not a re-enactment. We wanted to do something that used a theatrical form ... but to question it and challenge it."

The production will be staged in the Pearlstone Theater beginning at 8 p.m.

Although the Supreme Court's decision, which marks its 50th anniversary this month, was based on five different cases, tonight's production involves only two of them: the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and a companion case from South Carolina, which was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who ultimately became the first African-American appointed to the high court.

The production will also include readings from the news and editorial coverage by The Sun and the Afro American, as well as recollections by some in the community who were in school at the time.

Members of the public and Baltimore's legal profession will play the roles of the original participants, including Marshall and Chief Justice Earl Warren. Among them are judges Robert Bell of the Maryland Court of Appeals and Andre M. Davis of the U.S. District Court for Maryland, Gilbert Holmes, dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, John J. Oliver Jr., publisher of the Afro American, and Sun associate editor Jean E. Thompson.

Portions of the presentation were adapted by a team of volunteer law students and playwright Jerome Hairston.

The Afro supported an end to segregation on moral, ethical and legal grounds, Witt says. The Sun, which was basically in favor of integrating schools, argued that ending segregation would be a "huge blow against international communism."

The presentation also will involve current students from Baltimore City schools. "We're using them in counterpoint," Witt says. "Does [the ruling] mean anything to them? Have they even heard about it?"

A chance conversation

The idea for the production began almost a year ago during a chance conversation at a gymnasium between Harry S. Johnson, president of the Maryland State Bar Association, and Michael Ross, managing director of Center Stage.

"Ultimately, we're looking back at the significance of the decision," Witt says, "but we also provoke a lot of questions. What it has meant to Baltimore, the difference between integration and segregation ... not to make a point, but to raise questions."

Among those questions are, Would integration have occurred anyway without the court's ruling? Did the decision drive too many whites from the city, significantly altering Baltimore's demographics?

At the time of the ruling, in 1954, for example, the racial composition of Baltimore's public schools was 61 percent white and 39 percent black. Last year, African-Americans accounted for 88 percent of the city's enrollment, while whites represented 10 percent.

The production, Witt says, is not fictionalized. "The only liberty [taken] is in the order of the exchanges, the excerpts ... [and] we amalgamated the justices into three."

The production, which is partly sponsored by The Sun, will last about an hour and will be followed by a moderated community forum.

Center Stage

What: "Brown vs. Board Revisited: A Commemoration and Community Forum"

Where: Pearlstone Theater, Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tonight at 8

Admission: Free, but reservations required. Limit of four tickets per family.

Call: 410-332-0033.

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