Stage & Dance

'A Song for Coretta' has a lot to say, especially to young people

Coretta Scott King, the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was herself an icon of the civil rights movement.
Coretta Scott King, the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was herself an icon of the civil rights movement. ASSOCIATED PRESS

To the members of Agape Theatre Troupe, A Song for Coretta is a wake-up call.

Pearle Cleage's 2007 play is set at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Feb. 6, 2006, the day Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., lay in state there. Thousands of people showed up to pay their respects, and Cleage's play supposes a cross-generational meeting of five of them.

The women range from Helen, an old-guard civil rights activist who has fond memories of meeting Coretta Scott King a couple of times and distinct memories of the struggle for equality, to Li'l Bit, a teenage mom with little appreciation or awareness of the trials of generations before her. They clash, of course.

The actors in Agape's production, which opens Saturday for only two performances at the Lexington Opera House, are united in their conviction that the play is saying that blacks need to be reminded of how far they have come in the struggle for equality, and that work remains to be done.

"My stepmom always says, 'You kids aren't hungry enough,'" says Eryn Dailey-Demby, who plays Zora, an aspiring radio journalist whose interviews bring the group together. "She says, 'You know if you fall on your behind, you have a home to come back to.'

"But her story and her experiences are completely different. She's been on her own since she was 17, supporting herself. She paid her way through college. What they worked their butts off for, we get handed on a platter. I'm not saying we don't work for it, but the hunger my stepmother had and the hunger I have is a lot different."

Carolyn Garner, who plays veteran activist Helen, is not far removed from her character in her feelings about younger blacks.

"The most profound line in the show to me is when my character says, 'Sometimes when I think about what we used to be as a community of people, ... .' I'm of a certain age where I remember some of that stuff from when I was a child," Garner says. "And to grow up, and now people are selling crack and hanging their pants off their butt and trying to make endearing derivatives of the n-word and shouting it out and killing each other. ... When I grew up, everyone had a mother and a father and a loving family, and I didn't know any of that other stuff."

She and others in the cast remember Coretta Scott King as a pillar of that time and of virtue. The music industry, on the other hand, they see as having abdicated its conscience and responsibility, selling a criminal lifestyle as glamorous.

And Li'l Bit is emblematic of that, pregnant with her second child at age 15 and unwilling to hear what anyone has to say to her.

Tammie Harris, who plays her, says she knows people like Li'l Bit, but she cautions that it's important to understand where people in her circumstances come from.

"They have to raise themselves, so all they know is what they've taught themselves," Harris says. "So on the one hand, you want to be frustrated with her, like, 'Don't you know better?' But she doesn't. So you need people to say, 'I know you don't know the way. Let me show you the way."

That's what Agape wants A Song for Coretta to do.

"You really need to see this," director Deb Shoss says., "because there is an experience waiting for you here that you're not going to get anywhere else."

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