“A movement isn’t about how far you go,” Emmy award-winning actor Ron Jones said. “It’s about how many you bring with you.”
Jones wants you to know about civil rights: the power of the vote in initiating change, unintended consequences of the movement and how all civil rights are connected.
His two hour, 10-character play, “The Movement: Fifty Years of Love and Struggle,” gave this message. Jones performed the APB-planned event on Jan. 22 in Gaiser Hall for about 60 students, staff and administrators.
Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Loretta Capeheart said student government’s commitment to host events representing students of all races is paramount to an inclusive campus.
“It’s an opportunity [for students and faculty of color] to see themselves in a positive light,” Capeheart said. “With the media’s vilification of people of color … we have to tell the reality of the history in this country, and the reality of the current situation.”
Jones is a veteran of improv comedy and the Executive Director of Dialogues on Diversity, which bills itself as “the country’s premier social justice and diversity theater company.”
His play follows the fictional story of William, from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 becoming law, to William’s rise from local high school janitor to well-respected teacher before his death.
The central story is sprinkled in between projected montages of civil rights milestones, a slideshow Jones assembled through a year’s research that expresses the accomplishments and obstacles black Americans face.
He said much of black history isn’t often taught. “I’m not stupid, and there is so much that I didn’t know,” Jones said.
There are more characters, ranging from preachers, Black Panthers and inmates to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When Jones emerged from backstage in a white cape and pointed hood, the audience gasped and chuckled. The Klansman spoke in a caricatured southern lilt of focusing the Klan’s hatred and getting rich by selling guns and drugs to black communities.
Jones said he originally used this character as a teacher when examining social issues through monologues.
“I didn’t have a costume, just a bag over my head that said ‘racist,’” he said. “The kids were busting up laughing.”
But he said he was “terrified” to put it in the play until his director said she’d quit if he cut the scene.
“I’ve had a couple of people offended,” Jones said. “I’m a person who tries to be sensitive and understanding around these conversations; they don’t mean anything if I piss people off too much to hear them.”
He said he was writing the play when a white supremacist committed a mass-shooting at a church in Charleston, and he had to include it.
“It added about six minutes that I didn’t want to add, but I had to,” he said. “The black church has always been fundamental to our communities.”
He said many states suppressed the black vote by outlawing Sunday voting since the Supreme Court nullified Title V of the Voting Rights Act in 2011.
“It is no great coincidence that the black church was a rally point for most of the civil rights movement,” he said. “A lot of the voter registration was people taking a van down to city hall together on Sunday after church.”
Professor of Psychology and Early Childhood Education Debra Jenkins said the performance made her proud of her accomplishment as the first African-American woman to receive tenure and the Alumni Excellence Award at Clark.
“Sometimes progress is about firsts, not just in the nation but in a community,” she said. “I know my family is happy and proud of my firsts, and that’s worth celebrating.”
Audience members discussed the unique obstacles women of color face, the erasure of gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and the balance between celebrating differences and embracing similarities.
This open dialogue, Jones said during the hour he stayed on stage after the play ended, is the core of his performance.
“I feel like it’s important [to add humor to heavy topics,]” he said. “Part of the reason we deal with these issues as poorly as we do is that people are almost automatically afraid of the worst possible outcome. So if I can lower the temperature, ease the tension, before we even start, then maybe people can realize that the conversation is not the problem.”