Knox history on stage when ‘Red Summer’ comes to the Bijou

Sandra ClarkOur Town Arts

Red Summer comes to the Bijou Theatre Sept. 12-15 as part of the Carpetbag Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration. What better way to celebrate than with a production about events that happened right here in Knoxville, exactly 100 years ago. Kiame Biandudi of Carpetbag sets the stage:

World War I ended in 1919. Black men who served felt they deserved the full rights of citizenship and higher social status in return for their patriotic service.

Meanwhile, lynch mobs murdered 78 African-Americans, 10 of whom were veterans. East Tennessee was a place where a trade group proclaimed: “There are no Ku Klux Klan outrages here. We are a distinct and peculiar people.”

Red Summer, directed by Leilani Chan, is a drama based on events that occurred in Knoxville during the racially charged summer of 1919. It tells the story of a model African American community unable to escape the horrors of mob violence.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Aug. 30, 1919, a young white woman, Bertie Lindsay, was shot and killed in the bedroom of her home. Before dawn, a black man had been arrested and charged with the crime.

Tickets are $25 and available here or at the Bijou Theatre box office.

Linda Parris-Bailey

Linda Parris-Bailey is the executive/artistic director and primary playwright-in-residence for The Carpetbag Theatre Inc. We met at her office on Magnolia Avenue last week to discuss the upcoming play as well as the role The Carpetbag Theatre plays in Knoxville. I came away impressed.

The Carpetbag Theatre Inc. was founded in 1969 by Wilmer F. and Cleo Lucas. He was a writer and artist from New York City who came here as a visiting artist at Knoxville College. She was an artist and professor at Knoxville College and the University of Tennessee. “They determined that Knoxville needed a voice for original work,” said Parris-Bailey. “There has not been a year since the founding that Carpetbag has not produced at least one original work.”

Parris-Bailey came to Knoxville in 1974, upon graduation from Howard University with a degree in theater directing. She quickly teamed with the Lucases to expand their vision and create a place for her own artistic expression. “I was a playwright, even in college,” she says.

Over time, the ensemble company took root in Knoxville, offering productions at Knoxville College, UT’s Carousel Theatre, The Emporium and even Fourth Presbyterian Church. The Magnolia Avenue property provides a home of their own and a venue for auditions and rehearsals, but it is not large enough for productions. Hence, the performances are set this year at the Bijou Theatre downtown.

Parris-Bailey’s works primarily focus on themes of transformation and empowerment, according to the Carpetbag’s website. Her most recent work, “Speed Killed My Cousin,” was featured as the opening event of the Network of Ensemble Theaters’ Micro-Fest in Appalachia. “Speed” received a National Theater Project Award in 2014 from the New England Foundation for the Arts.

Her play, “Dark Cowgirls and Prairie Queens,” is considered the company’s signature work and continues to tour and be produced nationally. “Cowgirls” made it all the way to Broadway for a time. Not bad for a Knoxville-based playwright.

Parris-Bailey explains the Carpetbag concept: “We are a professional, multi-generational ensemble company dedicated to the production of new works. Our mission is to give artistic voice to the issues and dreams of people who have been silenced by racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of oppression.”

There is strength, she says, when the same actors devise ways of working together.

She is a storyteller who early on was advised to stay away from some of Knoxville’s stories. Parris-Bailey won’t do that. “You can’t change history,” I said. “But you can hide it,” she answered.

Ha! Parris-Bailey is the antithesis of hiding the town’s warts. She’s about first hearing and then telling the stories of Knoxville’s people who won’t be named “best dressed” or make the “Thirty under Thirty” list of up-and-comers. She uses words like transformation and empowerment. And she wants Carpetbag to be that space where each of us can embrace the hardest parts of our stories.

The website says it best: “We hope that reclaiming and reframing these stories will inspire us each to lean into the freedom of healing by shaking off the traumas that have held us hostage over time.”

It was a good day for Knoxville when Wilmer Lucas arrived in town to launch The Carpetbag Theatre. It was a better day when Linda Parris-Bailey showed up to nurture and grow his vision. I’m betting this Red Summer production sells out. That’s why I’m buying tickets today, before this story is shared around.

The cast of “Red Summer” was selected this week and announced late Wednesday: (top) Kisha Rockett, Andresia Moseley, Kim Tooks; (center) Drew Drake; (bottom row) Will Dorsey, Jazmin Witherspoon, and Carlton “Starr” Releford.

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