Say Their Names: The Story of Four Little Girls

Four Little Girls, playing at ASF until Feb 16

“What bothers me most is that their names have been virtually erased. They are inevitably referred to as ‘the four black girls.’” - Dr. Angela Davis

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Sharing the untold stories of the South was our central mission as we launched Foreword South nearly two years ago and as we sat in the audience at Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s production of Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, the aforementioned words echoing through the silence of an enchanted theater, we all had to reckon with how history erased not only the tragic death of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair but took with it their aspirations, their love, and their hope for a future where they were fully seen and recognized.

Rick Dildine, the artistic director at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, spoke with us after the show to give us behind-the-scenes insight into the play.

Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 was written by playwright Christina Ham, an African- American playwright, whose ties to Birmingham have influenced her work. Rick explains choosing to bring Ham to the stage was a deliberate decision made after reviewing the stories that had been historically told at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. “In looking back at ASF’s history, I went show by show over the past 40 plus years and noticed that there was significant absence from the voices of female playwrights and African-American playwrights. In putting together the season, I wanted to start introducing voices that have been missing from the repertoire at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and then the idea to include Montgomery Public School students came from being inspired by everything that’s happening in the community to improve the education system.”

This story came to life through the brilliance of a cast selected from our very city, largely students from the Montgomery Public Schools system. The state of our schools has been an ongoing issue which the people in this city have hotly debated for years. Labels attached to these schools and the decisions of adults have often, unfortunately, become a unfair reflection on the students of MPS. The cast brilliantly reminds us of what it talent lies right here in our city, and much like their forebears in the movement, these children are too are often underestimated and counted out.

Rick was deliberate in the choice to include local students from public schools during a climate like this. “I always ask [our Board of Directors] ‘What’s top of mind?’ because I think the theater should be relevant to what’s going on within our city, state, region, country.. and the number one thing that they said was education. So if that is the number one thing on people’s mind locally, then we have a responsibility to be engaging with that in some way.”

Four Little Girls  cast pictured with Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama. Jones prosecuted the KKK members convicted for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

Four Little Girls cast pictured with Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama. Jones prosecuted the KKK members convicted for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

The young cast were treated with the respect and high expectations of any other stage show. Auditions began in September, and shortly after, the students began weekly classes to prepare for the responsibility of telling the stories of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Carol Denise. “Michelle Browder from More than Tours took the students on a tour of civil rights landmarks in Montgomery, and did her amazing Michelle Browder history lessons. So it was not just theater lessons, it was about how to connect what’s going on with your community with the history of your community.”

The students took classes in October and November, and then in December they went into more formal, daily rehearsals.

“We gave them a creative team full of artists from Montgomery and the immediate region. They had  a director, a choreographer, and a full slate of designers: sets, lights, sounds, costumes, and production designers. What was important to us was that we didn’t want to treat them like a side project. They got treated like a mainstage production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.”

Throughout the show, we see their individual stories come to life and get a glimpse into what the terrorism of white supremacy stole from them. As an audience, we get to experience the duality of their sweet childish innocence and joy playing out against a backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. Just as we were beguiled by the visions of their futures only waiting to be fully realized, the story reminds us that for no Black American could you fully afford the luxury of dreaming. Rick explained, “One of the phrases I use all the time in rehearsal is ‘You have to go through the fire.’ and that means as a cast we had to work through tough moments in that play. One of the things the director was adamant about and did really well with was to navigate some moments that are difficult.”

(Pictured above) Featured cast members: Antonisia Collins as Cynthia, Trinity Ross as Carole, Jalyn Crosby as Addie Mae, Jhordyn Long as Denise, and Gaia Moore as Sarah

One of these difficult moments was the projection of the faces of each of the men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church which murdered the eponymous four girls and injured many others. “Putting the faces of those men up on screen is a powerful moment. But it also says ‘Those are real people. They did something terrible and tragic.’”  

ASF has made an important commitment to reflect the struggles, the conversations, and the truths of our community on their very own stage and Four Little Girls eloquently does so. Dildine believes in the power of theater to tell local stories, and to tell them in a way that is accessible. “There are more than the dominant stories -- you know, the dominant stories have dominated our spaces for a long time. This story is about four girls, all four whose names have really been lost to history, and to give voice to a group of people who have been silenced. So if anything, I hope people begin to, by seeing themselves on stage and seeing stories that are relevant to them on stage, see the theater as a place that’s for gathering -- for all people.”

A common tool of oppression is to censor the stories of our desires, our liberation, and our defiance. Even in the annual celebration of Black history, we see sanitized versions of our journey and sound bites from our freedom fighters that far too often condense their pain. Four Little Girls hides none of it, almost instrumentally playing on our heart strings as we realize the truth that some things which are stolen from us simply cannot be replaced or ever returned.  

Although these stolen things can never be replaced, we can work to reclaim our collective memory of them and Dildine hopes that Alabama Shakespeare Festival will be a part of that effort, from the script to the stage.

Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 is showing at Alabama Shakespeare Festival now through February 13, 2019. Tickets can be purchased at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s website, located here: https://asf.net/four-little-girls-birmingham-1963/