Almost three years ago, Lisa Y. Hopkins brought her mother’s part in the historic 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s counter sit-in to the stage for the first time, with a reading of her musical script at Philly’s Plays and Players Theatre.
Now, the community activist, playwright and founder of the Germantown-based Kama-Sahlor Group of Cultural Performing Arts is mounting a revamped version of the show this weekend at the Salvation Army Kroc Center.
“Sittin’-In,” is infused with the big band and gospel sounds of the era and follows Hopkins’s mother, Ingrid Wynn, as she heads from Northwest Philadelphia to Bennett College in Greensboro at the height of the Jim Crow era.
The forgotten Bennett Belles
In college, Wynn became a member of the Bennett Belles, a student civil rights group which was instrumental in launching the 1960 Greensboro protests that led to the desegregation of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in July of that year and subsequently sparking a revolution across the country.
Today, Hopkins notes, while people know the names of the A&T Four — the group credited with sparking the protests — few remember the female counterparts who also galvanized the movement.
“If not for the Bennett Belles and their support, they wouldn’t have had the support of the other students,” Hopkins said of the larger context of the A&T Four’s sit-in at the all-white lunch counter, adding that the sit-in was the idea of the Belles.
Developing the show
She’s been working hard on her script since the 2012 show, with the help of grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass’s office and the Theodore Morrow Memorial Fund, as well as dollars from the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.
The better targets Ingrid Wynn’s story, Hopkins said. Hopkins had the help of founder and executive artistic director of Fresh Visions Youth Theatre, Bruce Robinson, who workshopped the “Sittin’-In” script with the playwright.
Also on hand to advise Hopkins was one the original A&T Four, Jibreel Khazan (formerly known as Ezell A. Blair), who shared personal details of the students’ story with Hopkins throughout the writing process.
A whole new cast
The current production boasts a multi-racial cast and choir of 36 people, ranging in age from six to 60. The show includes church choirs from as far as Wilmington, Delaware and many performers from the greater Philadelphia area. There are also students from local schools featured, including youngsters from Northeast High School, John B. Kelly Elementary School, and the Jenks Academy for Arts and Sciences.
Watching theater professionals as inspirational mentors has been an important part of the process for the show’s kids, Hopkins added. And with such a large, diverse group of performers who have been rehearsing together since January, of course “there’s drama behind the drama,” but everyone comes together to get things done.
There are also 10 staffers attached to the production, including theater and television veteran Nakia Dillard, the “Sittin-In” artistic director, songwriter Joyce Drayton (whose 2001 song “I’ve Been Washed in the Blood” will be performed by the show’s choir), and choreographers J. Craig Bogan-El (who specializes in African dance and drumming) and hip-hop/modern dance artist J. Eric Churn.
The civil rights battle resurfaces
“Over 55 years ago we had to deal with civil rights, and now it’s resurfacing,” Hopkins insisted of why the show is timely now, with events like the recent death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
“It’s a big production with a big message of justice and equality,” she said of addressing modern racial profiling. “We need to live in peace. We need to strive for peace and justice.”
The Kroc Center, as a place where all denominations are welcome, made a beautiful venue for the endeavor, Hopkins said, with rehearsal and choir rooms and a gracious performance space that can fit about 300 audience members per show. It’s also ideally located for families from East Falls, Germantown, Mt. Airy, North Philadelphia and beyond to attend.
“Sittin’-In” is playing on Friday, May 1 at 7 p.m. and on Saturday, May 2 at 2 p.m. at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for kids, seniors, and college-age students. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or at the door.