“It was kinda intimidating,” Wagner said with an embarrassed laugh. “But the minute she told me about it, I was entranced by the story, the symbolism and the beauty of the message.”
The project Wagner was recruited for was an original historical drama written by McCain and JSU graduate student Jason Wright to celebrate Black History Month and benefit JSU’s Black Alumni Association Scholarship Fund.
The play’s title alone is apt to send a shudder through the memories of those familiar not only with one of the darkest moments in Anniston’s history, but that of the nation during the Civil Rights Movement — Th’ Burning.
“It’s a very sore spot,” Wright said, “but I fear that America hasn’t fully dealt with its (racist) history. This production will hopefully help do that.”
Th’ Burning uses the events of Mother’s Day 1961 when a mob attacked a Freedom Riders bus as it passed through Anniston.
On May 14, 1961, just south of Anniston, the driver of a southbound Greyhound motioned to the Freedom Riders’ bus driver, O.T. Jones, to pull over to the side of the road. A white man then ran across the road and yelled to Jones through the window, “There’s an angry and unruly crowd gathered at Anniston. There’s a rumor that some people on this bus are going to stage a sit-in. The terminal has been closed.
Believing the warning was a bluff, the driver was urged on. But when the bus rolled into the terminal parking lot just after 1 p.m., the station was locked and there was only silence.
“… Out of nowhere, a screaming mob led by Anniston Klan leader William Chappell rushed the bus,” writes Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. “As the crowd of about 50 surrounded the bus, an 18-year-old Klansman and ex-convict named Roger Couch stretched out on the pavement in front of the bus to block any attempt to leave, while the rest — carrying metal pipes, clubs and chains — milled around menacingly.”
Klan members then slashed the bus’ tires, forcing it to stop several miles outside of town where it was then firebombed. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intent on burning the riders to death. Eventually, the riders escaped, but were viciously beaten as they did. Only warning shots fired into the air by highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched.
Th’ Burning is set within the historical context of this attack, but it’s not meant to be a historical play — using instead this brutal event as a backdrop to tell the story of people entrenched on either side of this cultural war, both black and white, and what they can learn from each other, McCain explains.
“We realize that we all continue to have battles in life,” she said. “So what we’ve done with the whole bus burning is use it as the background for the battlefield. The play dramatizes human beings as they address the battles of everyday life … this happens to be the battles between people of that era and culture and their particular fight.”
This is a play that all can learn from, Wright said.
“It’s all part of our shared history,” he said. “And that’s why it needs to be addressed and discussed so that we can all learn from it … and learn from each other.”
For Wagner, who plays a 13-year-old African-American named Josephine, as someone who is bi-racial, it was as if the role was written specifically for her.
“With me being half black … it’s something that’s so ingrained in my heritage,” she said, “as soon as (Dr. McCain) told me about it; I wanted to play this role.”
It was also an educational process for Wagner, who had never heard of the Anniston bus burning.
“I had no idea,” said Wagner, who’s from Decatur. “And people my age that I asked about this had no idea either. It’s like a big secret that everybody wants to keep hidden. And if it weren’t for this play, I never would have known what happened … that’s probably true for a lot of people.”
In addition to the original dialogue, Th’ Burning also features original songs, as well as standards of the time.
“You really can’t talk about black culture without talking about music,” McCain said. “That was also the best way to build a bridge between cultures because we both get it. We both appreciate it. Music speaks to us all.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
When: Friday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m.: Saturday, Feb. 25, 6 p.m. reception, 7:30 p.m. show
Where: Mason Hall Performance Center, Jacksonville State University
How much: $5 on Feb. 24. $15 for adults and $12 for students for Feb. 25 show.
Contact: 256-782-8364. Educators interested in bringing students for a special Thursday, Feb. 23, showing should call 256-782-5635 for arrangements.