It's been said before and it'll be said again: the election of Barack Obama casts a new light on the Civil Rights Movement. Or, in Ricardo Pitts-Wiley's words, "We get to tell the story in a different way." And so he has. Writer, director, actor, and co-founder of Mixed Magic Theatre, Pitts-Wiley has created When Fate Comes Knocking, which runs through February 15th at Mixed Magic in Pawtucket.
The subtitle of Pitts-Wiley's play is "The events that shaped the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.," but this is not a bio-drama. There are scenes with MLK and Coretta, (Pitts-Wiley and Jeannie Carson), short excerpts of King's writing (letters and speeches), and a very effective slide-show of Civil Rights leaders and other historic figures projected to the right of the stage. But the thrust of this story is told through a group of five neighbors, sitting on a porch, snappin' green beans.
Pitts-Wiley's writing is never better than when the dialogue is shaped for the conversation of everyday folk and the themes are straight from the heart — he has said that this play pays homage to the foot soldiers of the Movement, including his father. It's then that the language takes on a natural, even poetic flow from repeated phrases and alternating rhythms.
The latter is never more true than when the murders and assassinations of that era begin, and Carson, as the porch-sitter Mabel, jumps up and says, "What's goin' on? What kinda people have we become?" It's chilling the first time she says it, but it doesn't lose any of its power when she repeats it for Emmett Till, JFK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombing and, of course, MLK himself.
But for all the sorrow and solemnity of that time, it was the music and humor that sustained us. And in the African-American community, those two most likely saved lives. Danette Briggs, as the neighbor Lizzie, tells the story of the child marchers in Birmingham on whom the "Commissioner of Public Safety" Bull Connor turned fire hoses and then jailed — five days of protests led to 2000 children behind bars. And while they were there, Pitts-Wiley's words remind us, they sang and sang and sang.
And so do the folk on Pitts-Wiley's porch: they sing "freedom songs," hymns, and soul-stirring anthems. And, wisely, they just sing one verse or two, never interrupting the flow of their porch-chats too much, just punctuating them with the urgency that people in Montgomery — or anywhere in the deep South — must have felt.
They also spoof and tease each other: about Mabel's crush on Cassius Clay; about Dub's (Pitts-Wiley) pronouncement that preacher's wives should know how to play the piano and teach Sunday School; about PJ's (Jim Webster) argument over whether blackeyed peas have the "d" on their name and whether they're a pea or a bean. Teenager Yolanda Crockett, as LouElla, has a strong presence in these porch scenes, along with great timing.
When Fate Comes Knocking takes us through MLK's short life with knocks on King's door: his discovery of Mahatma Gandhi's teachings and practice; his encounter with E.D. Nixon, the organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott; his meeting with Malcolm X; his audience with the King of Norway, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize; his decision to speak out about the Vietnam War. The play lingers for a bittersweet moment on Coretta's worries for him and on the fears of the entire black community for his safety.