Pollyanna Theatre Company explains civil rights in new production

Fifty years ago President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but how do you explain the significance of this groundbreaking legislation to kids in 2014?

That’s what Pollyanna Theatre Company is doing in its new children’s theater production “Liberty! Equality! and Fireworks!” It’s designed for third- through sixth-graders.

The play, written by Austinite Gregory Perrin, takes iconic photographs from the civil rights struggle and brings them to life. It’s pictures like the sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina and the march from Selma to Montgomery. But instead of focusing on the famous people kids learn about in school, the play highlights the ordinary people in the pictures.

“It’s for young people to realize everyday, ordinary Americans made really courageous acts of political bravery to make this happen,” says Pollyanna Artistic Director Judy Matetzschk-Campbell. “They can be that courageous.”

Matetzschk-Campbell sees this play as a chance to welcome a new generation into the conversation about civil rights. Adults, she says, often forget that kids in elementary school don’t have the historical framework to understand what segregation was. Fifty years seems so long ago to grade-schoolers who weren’t even alive before 9/11.

In the play, a group of fourth-graders are at a field trip to a history museum. They complain about how boring it is and the teacher, frustrated, leaves to go call the principal. Suddenly a mysterious docent takes the students on an adventure as people begin to step out of the pictures on the wall and explain what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South.

Pollyanna Theatre Company collaborated with the LBJ Library and Museum on this play, specifically the study guide that goes with the production. More than 10 local schools will see it during school-day performances, and it’s open to the public as well.

Even though the audience isn’t living in a pre-Civil Rights time, that doesn’t mean they don’t understand inequality, Matetzschk-Campbell says. “The form of inequality has shifted. Now it’s the neighborhood, the size of the house or what parents do. It’s about class difference.”

Theater, she says, is a chance for kids to identify with characters on an emotional level. “It’s an opportunity for us to ask questions about how they treat each other and how they see adults in the world treat each other.”

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