When writer, director and producer J.P. Haynes brings her “Selma” performances to the Hub City on Thursday and Friday, she’ll be doing so in a historic venue.
It’s also a venue that – just a few decades ago – would have made Haynes and her cast enter through a side alley.
At 8 p.m. Thursday, the Hattiesburg-based Haynes will host the world premiere of her lastest project: Selma: The Untold Stories, a four-part limited TV series.
The following night, she and her award-winning touring cast will present Selma The Musical: The Untold Stories.
Both events will be held at the historic Hattiesburg Saenger Theater, which was built in 1929 and was segregated for much of its early life.
While white patrons could enter through the theater’s elaborate lobby, African Americans were required to enter through a separate alley door.
The alley entrance, located on the side of the building, has been bricked up, but its shadow remains as a reminder of Jim Crow laws in Mississippi.
One such law read that every person “operating any public hall, theater, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons … shall separate the white race and the colored race.”
Mississippi’s Jim Crow era began its slow death with the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 and continued with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A further blow was dealt to Jim Crow in 1965 with the approval of the Voting Rights Act.
It’s fitting, then, that Haynes will bring her performances to the Saenger, especially because the performances tell the story of an event that inspired some of the actions leading to the abolition of Jim Crow.
“Talk about a full circle moment,” said Haynes. “I’m humbled by the thought of seeing that alley entrance, knowing (that) we will be headlining a two-night event in that very same theater.”
The limited series – and musical – are set in Selma, Ala., during the tumultuous early ‘60s.
The musical tells the story of the protest marches held in 1965 along the highway from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. The marches, organized by nonviolent activists and led by Martin L. King Jr., highlighted racial injustices and led to violent conflicts.
During the march’s “Bloody Sunday,” state troopers and locals attacked marchers, including a brutal attack on civil rights leader Amelia Boynton.
She was beaten unconscious, and a photograph of her lying wounded was broadcast worldwide. The events of these marches led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The musical has been on tour for three years. The series was recently developed and will have its world premiere in Hattiesburg.
The musical stars Quintin Alexander as Joe and Hattiesburg’s Melissa Davidson as Connie and features McComb’s Chiara Pittman as Amelia, Marcus Blake as Dr. King, Hattiesburg’s Olivia Carter as Hannah, Atlanta’s Amefika El-Amin as John Lewis, and Comedian Whodi, of Hattiesburg as Huey. Featured ensemble vocalists include Felita Ja’Cole, Lakken Johnikin, Chantell ‘Cece’ Davis, and Columbia’s Kens’ley ‘Beau’ Waller.
The series is a broader look at the Selma of 1965 and is a work of historical fiction that follows a family as it struggles with the conflicts of the Civil Rights Movement.
Each episode focuses on a different member of the fictional Wilson family and on a different viewpoint. Some members of the family support King’s vision for a unified America while others do not and simply want to “keep the peace,” according to Haynes.
The special two-night event is in celebration of Black History Month and is sponsored by Signature Magazine, the Historic Hattiesburg Saenger Theater, the Sixth Street Museum District with support from FestivalSouth and the Southern Miss School of Music.
Each night, the events are preceded by a 6:30 p.m. red carpet reception.
Visit hattiesburgsaenger.com for tickets while they last.