Northwest Philly activist takes her family story to the stage

Lisa Hopkins is well-known for her neighborhood activism, including her work with the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown on the Potter’s Field issue.

With a story that travels from Nazi Germany and Liberia to Germantown and North Carolina, she’s ready to share her own family’s tale.

“They know about Martin Luther King, Jr., they know about Rosa Parks, they know about Malcolm X,” Hopkins said of her fellow citizens, “but how much do they know about the college freshmen, both boys and girls, who helped to launch the Civil Rights Movement in Greensboro, NC in the winter of 1960?”

Weekend play premiere

On Sunday, the licensed cosmetology educator’s new play, Sittin’-In, will premiere at Plays & Players Theater in Center City. The performance, admittedly a work in progress, will fall somewhere between a reading and full-on production.

“This story is so amazing that I couldn’t have people sit in a circle and just read it to me,” Hopkins said of the play she started working on last winter with a visit to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. “I want people to feel the passion, feel the drama, and feel the music.”

The museum that now occupies the site of the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in of which Hopkins’ mother was a part.

Extensive research

To understand how her mother, Ingrid, came to march in the Woolworth’s picket line that helped to spark the civil rights movement, Hopkins traced the family lore back to her biological grandfather’s escape from Germany in 1939.

Hopkins’ Jewish great-great grandparents, as well as her great-uncle, perished in the Holocaust, but her biological grandfather, a merchant, had done business with a Nazi soldier who helped him get the paperwork he needed to depart for West Africa.

He arrived in Liberia and lived out the rest of his life according to local custom, marrying four Liberian women and fathering 13 children in all. Hopkins’s mother, Ingrid, was the first-born.

The missionary Rev. Walter C. Wynn of Liberia’s Booker T. Washington Institute, and his wife, Thelma, a distinguished educator who taught English and was instrumental in bringing girls to the formerly all-male institute, would adopt Ingrid and her sister Margarette.

Rev. Wynn, later the pastor of Taylor Memorial Baptist Church in Tioga, brought his family back stateside, and Ingrid and Margarette became naturalized citizens.

Local ties

In the late 1950s, Ingrid attended Germantown High School, which had recently been integrated. She found common ground with her best friend, a Jewish girl named Rhoda Indictor.

One of the teenaged Ingrid’s favorite pastimes was taking in a Germantown basketball game with Rhoda, and then going together to the old Woolworth’s, formerly on Germantown Avenue east of Chelten, for a treat.

But when Ingrid prepared to depart for Bennett College in North Carolina, her adoptive parents had a serious talk with her about Jim Crow laws in effect at the time.

“You have to drink from a separate water fountain, you have to eat at separate restaurants, you have to use a separate bathroom, and when you go to the movies, you have to sit in a separate balcony,” they cautioned.

When she arrived in North Carolina for her first semester of college, “That triggered her to say ‘No, something has to be done about this.'”

That spirit took her, and a group,  to the all-white Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960.

The rest is history

Earlier this year, Hopkins engaged Plays and Players literary manager Nelson Barre as a dramaturge. He was instrumental in bringing the performance to the Plays and Players stage.

Hopkins said the play’s spiritual messages of peace through drama, laughter and music are important in a city still plagued by racism, homicide and bullying.

She was determined to mount a performance that includes black and white actors of all ages. Hopkins said she was brought to tears by a casting process that made her grandmother Thelma and other beloved family member alive once more.

“I know I’m fulfilling their legacy to tell this story,” she said.

Tickets for the 6 p.m. reading are free but should be reserved in advance by e-mailing lisayhop@msn.com.

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