It’s sad how much of Black History is marked by tragedy, perhaps none so heartrending as the 1963 murders of Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley, all age 14, by Ku Klux Klan terrorist bombers while attending The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. A 1997 film by Spike Lee, 4 Little Girls, was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary, despite playing in only four theatres nationwide.
SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development honors the memory of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, with a Black History Month production, 4 Little Girls by Christina Ham. It’s a fitting venue for young audiences, having a solid track record as a place where youth can learn how different cultures have contributed to our social climate today.
Artistic director Richard Hitchler took time during the final hours between final tech rehearsal and opening night to discuss his company’s stage production of 4 Little Girls by email. Hitchler reflected on SteppingStone Theatre’s reputation for respecting cultural diversity, stating, “We create and produce culturally specific productions each and every year and have been celebrating Black History Month with a production based on the African American experience and culture since 1996.
“Past productions celebrating African American culture and Black History Month have included Almost to Freedom by Kim Hines, Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges by Christina Ham, The Black Snowman by Deborah Torraine and many more. We feel that it is important to celebrate the many cultures that exist in the Twin Cities and reflect these cultures on our stage… Children deserve to see their own culture represented in stories that are brought to life on the stage.”
There being no shortage of incidence or persons to bring to the stage in the interest of commemorating a people’s vast, ongoing struggle, why did Hitchler choose this subject? “I was listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in which he mentioned ‘the four little girls killed in an Alabama church bombing’ and it felt impersonal to me. As though the four girls were merely a statistic. Much like we currently hear about eleven soldiers killed in Afghanistan, or three people died in a car crash.
“I began to wonder who these four girls were. What were their names? Their hopes, dreams, desires, friends? The fact that they had parents, siblings, friends, classmates, and lives that ended too soon. And once you put a name and a face to these girls, they become human.
“They then have a story to tell about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and why their deaths were so important to the Civil Rights Movement, and in particular, the Children’s Movement of Civil Rights. How they became catalysts for change. And how they no longer are ‘four little girls,’ but Denise, Carole, Cynthia, and Addie Mae.”
4 Little Girls is playing at SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development, 55 Victoria Street North in Saint Paul through Feb. 22.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.