‘Red Summer’ spotlights Knoxville’s race riots of 1919

Sandra ClarkOur Town Arts

Some people fight for freedom. Others bear witness to the truth. Both roles are celebrated in the powerful production of “Red Summer” playing for three more days at the Bijou Theatre.

Not since the World’s Fair has Knoxville hosted so much talent and creativity on stage as we can see this weekend at Clarence Brown Theatre with “Million Dollar Quartet” and from the Carpetbag Theatre’s production of “Red Summer.”

Mayor Madeline Rogero presents a proclamation to Linda Parris-Bailey, executive and artistic director of Carpetbag Theatre. State Sen. Becky Massey and state Rep. Rick Staples wait to present resolutions.

Thursday’s opening night began with writer/producer Linda Parris-Bailey receiving proclamations from Mayor Madeline Rogero, state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey and state Rep. Rick Staples. Carpetbag Theatre, the Knoxville-based, longest-running black theater in the United States, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Parris-Bailey has been there for 45 of those years.

The Roy Cockrum Foundation fully funded a three-year celebration of Carpetbag Theatre, enabling the ensemble company to bring back six previously produced, original works. “Red Summer” is the finale of that celebration, and Roy Cockrum was present on opening night.

“Red Summer” is hard to watch. Just 100 years ago, race riots broke out across the nation. Black soldiers returning from World War I had seen a different way of life. They came home determined to have equality. Civic boosters said Knoxville was a different kind of Southern city with “a distinct and peculiar people.” Yet, two months later, a race riot broke out here.

Knoxville got it backwards, though. Here the white majority first attacked the jail, seeking to lynch Maurice Mays, a biracial man accused of killing a white woman. Discovering that the sheriff had taken Mays to Chattanooga, the rioters then turned on a predominately black community in the area that’s now the Old City. The blacks took up arms to defend their homes and families. Both whites and blacks were killed. Then the state militia came in and put a curfew on the blacks.

Joe Etter (Will Dorsey) and wife Mary (Andresia “Real” Moseley) are the emotional core of the play – he ready to fight for freedom and she resisting the role of woman-left-behind. Her grief at learning of Joe’s death is total.

Kim Tooks is perfectly cast as Aunt D – every family’s acerbic sidekick. Her role was written to draw laughs and she nailed it, delivering lines with a side profile, pursed lips and a hint of a smile. Tooks is an actor, singer and teaching artist from New York.

Leilani Chan, the director, came in from San Francisco. Jazmin Witherspoon (Sadie) is a St. Louis native who graduated from UT and now lives in Knoxville. Carlton Releford (who played the soldier Easley) has numerous stage and television credits. Kisha Rockett (Aroloine) is from Wisconsin. Drew Drake (Dantzler) is the young man, a handy target for Aunt D, who lives to bear witness to the truth.

Carpetbag Theatre has assembled a cast of professionals who mesh together well. And then there’s the vocal ensemble – Sylvia Rupert, Bert Tanner, Vivian Williams and Linda Hill – that softens the transitions between scenes. All-in-all it’s a powerful play well performed.

Three performances remain:

  • Friday, Sept. 13, meet the performers in the Bijou Theatre’s gallery with light snacks and refreshments immediately following the performance.
  • Saturday, Sept. 14, Carpetbag will host a digital story showing just before the performance, also in the Bijou’s gallery.
  • Sunday, Sept. 15, celebrate the finale of the 50th Anniversary Series at the Jackson Terminal immediately following the performance with snacks, libations and Afro-Caribbean beats by Grand Hustle Records’ DJ PrymeTime.

Tickets are general admission, $25 for adults, $10 for children. Phone the Bijou box office at 865-522-0832 for ticket availability.

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