Drama interprets death of MLK in everyday life

Sunday, March 14, 2004

On the fateful evening of April 4, 1968, several working-class Kansas City, Mo. residents were gathered at a beauty salon for the usual mix of mostly light-hearted banter and radio tunes, but that was all before songs on the radio were replaced by the news that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis.

This is the setting of "Nothing Comes to Sleepers," a play written by Jacquee Gafford of the Kansas City-based performance company In Play, which will be presenting the production in Cape Girardeau at 7 p.m. March 29 at Southeast Missouri State University's Rose Theatre.

"Nothing Comes to Sleepers" was born out of Gafford's interest in Martin Luther King. "Something that always fascinated me was the assassination of Dr. King," she said. As a child, Gafford was one of few blacks living in Rapid City, S.D. She said that at the time King's assassination did not create a big reaction in South Dakota, while she remembered seeing grieving faces of black Southerners on television.

"I always felt like I didn't get a chance to grieve," she said.

This play was a way for Gafford to finally address the King assassination and allow her to think about "what it was like for ordinary people when they're living their ordinary lives with this extraordinary thing happening."

Gafford is one of the founding members of In Play, formed in 1998 to address the lack of theatrical roles for minorities in Kansas City.

"There was just a dearth of good roles for minorities to perform," said Fran Farah, another founding member and In Play's production manager and producer.

"It was a joke around here that you could work during Black History Month," said Gafford, who is also the company's artistic director.

While part of In Play's mission is to provide minorities with roles, another part is to create and put on works that reach out to America's multicultural population. And the company wants to educate young people about parts of history that are in danger of being forgotten, Farah said.

What the productions do is find a way to teach people about often serious subjects in an entertaining manner.

"None of us want to be preached to, we want to be entertained," Farah said.

In Play will also stage a workshop at the Rose Theatre earlier in the day where the actors will present the non-violent techniques of civil disobedience civil rights leaders taught people before they went out on demonstrations.

The demonstrators were taught how to deal with the spitting, attack dogs, verbal and physical abuse that would confront them, Gafford said. They even had to learn how to relax their bodies so the police would be forced to pick them up and carry them to the police vehicles.

"One of the reasons for doing this is I keep hearing, 'if I were there, it never would have happened that way,'" Gafford said. "Part of this is to acknowledge what heroes these people were to endure this."

Most of the company's productions are performed at the Just off Broadway cooperative in Kansas City, and this month's performance in Cape Girardeau will be the group's first appearance at a university.

Capturing SEMO attention

This appearance might never have happened if Don Dickerson, president of the university's board of regents, had not attended a July performance of "Nothing Comes to Sleepers" in Kansas City and thought it would be a good way to add to the university's multicultural outreach efforts. Apparently, university president Dr. Ken Dobbins agreed.

"'Nothing Comes to Sleepers' is part of the university's continuing efforts to reflect the multicultural character of America by presenting artistic productions and developing outreach programs that educate and entertain the campus and the Cape Girardeau community," Dobbins said. "The university values diversity and inclusion, and the arts is one way to promote and foster unity and an appreciation of cultural difference."

Dr. Mel Gillespie, assistant to the president for equity issues, also said that the arts lends itself well to tackling such subjects broached by "Nothing Comes to Sleepers."

And Gillespie said people in the area will be interested in seeing the production because of what it is about and because they know the university brings in quality productions.

Already close to 350 tickets have been sold, and the rest are going fast, Gillespie said.


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