Six area actresses to star in play about friendship and segregation

Date Published: 
February 21, 2014

Coastal Point • Maria Counts: Actresses Summer Okoye and Melanie Showell perform in a scene at Possum Point Players from ‘Southern Girls,’ which follows the lives of six girls living in Alabama, and their struggles with segregation during the civil rights movement.Coastal Point • Maria Counts: Actresses Summer Okoye and Melony Showell perform in a scene at Possum Point Players from ‘Southern Girls,’ which follows the lives of six girls living in Alabama, and their struggles with segregation during the civil rights movement.This weekend, six local students will perform in “Southern Girls,” a play by Sheri Bailey and Dura Temple.

Set in Southern Alabama in the early 1950s, “Southern Girls” follows six childhood friends — three African-America girls, Naomi Hurdle, Wanda Sue Johnson and Ruth Hurdle, and three Caucasian girls, June-Adele Taylor, Charlotte Cecil Martin and Dolly Granger Jackson.

“This is one of those shows that draws you in. I think people are going to see that this is something that was real, not just something in a textbook,” said 16-year-old Summer Okoye of Millsboro, who plays Naomi.

The play follows the six girls as they struggle to make sense of the turbulent years of the civil rights movements of the ’50s and ’60s, and as the experiences that hold them together as children later threaten their relationships as they mature, with their lives reflecting an era of change and growing pains in the South.

“I was very excited the first time I read it, because I feel it’s such a deep play,” said 16-year-old Kori Lewandowski of Bridgeville, who plays June-Adele. “It doesn’t just show one side of the problem, if you will. It shows it from both sides, which I think is a very important thing to have.”

Lewandowski described June-Adele as an “in-betweener” who constantly struggled with knowing that segregation is wrong, while also staying friends with those who support it.

“Even from a young age, June-Adele has always been an activist. She doesn’t understand why people have to be treated differently. She doesn’t understand why people can’t be equals just because of the way they look, because of something they can’t control.

“She works at helping others see that being segregated isn’t the right way… She struggles with that because of the friends she keeps.”

One such friend is Dolly, played by 15-year-old Maddie Baum of Gumboro.

“Dolly is a very Southern belle. She’s very mean, independent and bossy. She tends to try and have everything her way, and if it isn’t she gets mad and outraged,” said Baum of her character.

Sierra Riedel of Harbeson, 15, plays Charlotte, who is good friends with June-Adele and Dolly.

“I’m a lost soul. I’m a very influential person from my mother,” Riedel said of the character, adding that Charlotte has mixed feelings about segregation because she has an African-American half-sister, Wanda Sue, a result of her father’s indiscretions.

“Because Wanda Sue is my half-sister, I do feel for — if you will — the ‘other side.’ But because of my mother and the people I’m raised around, I don’t show it or try to do anything about it. So I just have more self-hatred.”

Wanda Sue, the interracial half-sister of Charlotte, is played by 13-year-old Baleigh Lambert of Millsboro. “Southern Girls” is Lambert’s first foray into acting.

“I just want to be someone without color, because I don’t want to have to struggle with the issues they have to face,” said Lambert of her character. “It’s hard. Finding my character was hard.”

Wanda Sue is friends with sisters Naomi and Ruth, played by Okoye and 17-year-old Melony Showell of Millsboro, respectively.

“She’s protective and motherly,” said Showell of Ruth. “I can relate to her because I’m an older sister.”

“She grows up in the South, with a conservative culture and a lot of segregation,” added Okoye of Naomi. “She’s really on the flipside of June-Adele. She’s the African-American character who’s trying to liberate and really stand up for the cause of civil rights.”

Okoye said that she could relate to Naomi in that she’s a strong, independent woman, but portraying other aspects of the character’s life was more challenging.

“It’s was kind of hard, because everything we’re learning I’ve never gone through,” she said. “Everything in the show we mostly learned about in textbooks before. I’m connecting with the characters more and more as we go.”

In order to help the actresses have a better understanding of what life was like during segregation, Showell’s grandmother shared her own personal experiences during one rehearsal.

“She grew up in this area,” said Showell of her grandmother. “It wasn’t too bad, but she still experienced some of the racial prejudices. She remembers going to a school and it just starting to be desegregated… how there was a white side of town and a black side of town.”

“The characters — they start out as children and grow into adults, experiencing things these actresses have never experienced,” added Director Claudius Bowden, Jr.

During rehearsals, the actresses also went through a series of exercises, including pretending to sit on a bus where they think their characters would sit during the play’s setting.

“We would sit where we would think our character would sit on the bus,” said Showell. “Then we changed seats and talked about why we changed seats.”

The actresses, who’ve now become good friends themselves, even watched “The Butler” one Saturday night, to help them visualize the prejudices that African-Americans endured during that era.

“It’s kind of the same timeframe and deals with all these issues,” said Okoye.

“I think it did help,” said Showell of coming to understand her character. “Actually seeing it, they actually did that to people.”

The experience has even allowed the actresses to discuss how the play has changed their view of the strong language spoken throughout the play.

“We were talking about simple things, about how we mess around in school. They just say it without even knowing the truth,” said Okoye.

“It’s something that’s taken as a joke by a certain group of people, but then if another group were to say it, people would be offended,” said Lewandowski.

“I think it changed my perspective, because I was one of those people who used to joke a lot with the N-word with my friends. Now that I’ve done this play, it changed how I think about saying that word,” added Lambert. “The word being said to me a lot, I know it’s a play, but it still kind of hurts my feelings, because I am black. It feels like they are saying that to me because I am colored.”

“You can’t use different words, because at that time, there weren’t nice words,” explained Bowden. “There weren’t nice people.”

“Southern Girls” is production of Dreamers United, an affiliate of Possum Point Players, which seeks diversity of all types, including cultural, social and economic.

Dreamers United was created by Bowden and fellow actor Rosa Barnes when Bowden returned to the theater after taking a hiatus from acting and noticed that there were few people who “looked like” him on stage and in the audience.

“The reason why I did this was there were a number of years when I wasn’t involved in the theater,” he explained. “When I returned several years ago — my first few plays, I loved them. But looking out in the audience, I thought, ‘Where’s the diversity? Dreamers United is something Rosa Barnes and I formed in my living room.”

Bowden said their goal was to get people of color into the theater — both on and off stage. Dreamers United’s first production, “A Celebration of Black History,” an original play written by Bowden and Barnes, was well-received, but Bowden waited before choosing their next theatrical project.

“I read the book five times,” said the first-time director.

“It’s a serious play. By serious, I mean the characters are taken seriously and the situations are taken seriously. The actors have an opportunity to really explore the depth of the characters if they so choose,” said assistant director Jim Debastiani of the play. “I grew up in the ’60s, when all of the turmoil was happening and things were changing. A lot of messages in this were messages that were very prevalent when I was growing up.”

“For me, it was a bit different. I can remember, as a kid, seeing things happen as far as discrimination,” said Bowden. “My dad is from North Carolina, and I remember us visiting there and stopping at a store. We were thirsty. We walked in, and the gentleman stated that no
‘[n-----s]’ were allowed in the store. It scared us. We knew that it was bad, but we didn’t really comprehend everything that was going on. I remember getting back in the car, and him and mom talking and then just being quiet.

“Kids today may have read about it or seen it on TV but may not realize it really happened. When I read it, it touched me there.”

No auditions were held for the roles. Instead, Bowden offered roles to specific girls he had in mind, some of whom had never performed before.

“They’ve all surpassed what I thought they could do,” he said.

Performances of “Southern Girls” will be held on Friday, Feb. 21, and Saturday, Feb. 22, at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 23. Tickets cost $10 per person and may be purchased in advance or at the door.

Debastiani said the play is for people “looking for a voice.”

“This will probably spark some conversation. You’ve got to have an opinion about it. You don’t have to express it.”

“It’s something you hope people come into with an open mind and go out with a new knowledge that causes them to really think,” added Lewandowski.

Riedel said she hopes those who see the play will take home awareness of the happenings of the not-so-distant history.

“This is something that happened, and it’s not really gone,” she said.

Everyone involved in the production said the play, while it has many difficult moments, is not to be missed.

“People should come see it,” said Baum. “There are a lot of hidden messages in this.”

“I’m not sure what the reaction is going to be when people see this. We’re hoping when people see this, they’ll learn to respect one and other.”

“I feel everyone should see it,” said Okoye. “Young, old, you’ll find a way to connect to it.”

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (302) 856-4560 or visit possumpointplayers.org. Possum Point Players is located at 441 Old Laurel Road in Georgetown.