While the Democratic National Convention is in town this week, the Committee of 70 is using it as a teachable moment for young people.
The committee, a Philadelphia nonpartisan political watchdog group that monitors elections issues and voter turnout, is teaching civic engagement through theater.
At the Science Leadership Academy high school in Philadelphia’s Logan Square neighborhood, “Voices of Voting” will be performed by a cast of three, backed up by two members of Ill Doots, a jazz/hip-hop ensemble. They described how African-American teenagers in Selma, Alabama in the 1960s fought for voting rights for adults.
“The teenagers walked out of class to protest,” said playwright David Bradley. “Their teachers said, ‘You’re not old enough to vote. What are you protesting for?’
“‘I guess I’m going for you. I’m going to get your freedom.'”
That was an actual exchange, according to Bradley’s research, between a student and his teacher in Selma in the 1960s. Last year, Bradley began researching the Selma civil rights demonstrations for a 2015 project with the Committee of 70 related to the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
He revisited that material for “Voices of Voting,” adding a modern character, a politically disengaged 18-year-old who maintains “politics is not my thing.” His interests are working a low-wage job, going to community college, and texting his friends about getting tickets to the upcoming Made In America concert on the Parkway.
“Take Made in America. Big festival,” said Bradley. “A lot of young people go, they show up, they make it a thing. A lot of people may not like that it’s there on the Parkway. But people wanted it so it happened.
“He has this discovery — we show up there, it’s a thing. If we show up to vote, what if our collective voice grows similarly. Can we make voting a thing?” said Bradley.
In the last mayoral election in Philadelphia, only 12 percent of eligible 18- to 35-year-olds voted.
The Committee of 70, formed 112 years ago, has never before commissioned a play to encourage voter turnout.
“Don’t just lecture at them or read them things or shake your finger at them,” said committee president David Thornburgh. “Say, ‘Look, this is all yours. This is not a spectator sport. So get in the game.’ Then the curve starts to turn in the right direction.”
“Voices of Voting” will be performed, for free, four times a day during the DNC.