Perseverance is at the core of LaGrange High School’s upcoming black history program, which takes its dramatic premise straight from a little-known dark period in civil right history.
Inspired by the book “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon, LaGrange High School assistant principal Kenneth Redding created this year’s black history program story around a turn-of-the-century black family affected when one member is arrested on false vagrancy charges and put to work in jail. The idea comes from a practice that was common in the south in the decades following the Civil War, where African-Americans were often arrested on trumped-up charges, then put to work indefinitely, Redding said.
“There were a lot of blacks taken off the streets for petty crimes, or no crime at all,” he said. “Then they’d have to work off their sentence at mines or somewhere else.”
The central character in the play is arrested and thrown in jail with fellow African-Americans who have been working off their five-month vagrancy sentences for years. Despite the conditions, they try to stay upbeat with songs as they work.
The play deals with the fallout of the arrest on the central character’s family, as they cope with the injustice and began to fight among themselves over how to handle it. On the other side, the audience sees the hopeful musician-turned-prisoner influence his new cell mates, who have resigned themselves to their unjust fates.
“He’s a fictitious character, but one whose story actually played out in the South often from the end of slavery — about the 1880s until Franklin Roosevelt became president,” Redding said.
The cast includes about 40 LHS students who have been practicing three to four times per week since October, said Beth Green, who is co-directing the program with Redding for the eighth year. The group includes many newcomers to the stage, but they all have made great strides in the months since they began, she said.
“At the beginning, a lot of them had no experience with singing or acting, then boom,” Green said. “It’s incredible to see how Mr. Redding gets them together and gets them to reach their potential.”
This year’s show features the LHS girls’ step team and the newly formed boys’ step team as well.
The show features musical numbers that range from gospel to sounds from different eras from the 1920s to 1960s. The main character of the play is an aspiring musician, which also plays into the musical selections.
Redding said the idea behind this year’s show is that African-Americans have persevered times of severe hardship before, and believe if they could get through the immediate post-slavery years of false imprisonment, they can persevere through problems today.
“So many men’s lives — so many died or disappeared, progress was impeded,” Redding said. “But if we persevered through that, I feel we can persevere through these changes.”