It never surfaced in his elementary school education. So Josh Batenhorst is on something of an awareness mission — one so passionate that a drama troupe he helps lead reached a half million people nationwide last year alone.
Much of that audience heard the message of the civil rights fight of the 1950s and 1960s, of which he was ignorant.
“I had to learn about most of this struggle later in life,” said Batenhorst, the 39-year-old chief operating officer of Bright Star Touring Theatre based in Arden, North Carolina. “That’s really wrong — especially in the South. It’s frustrating to think that some people have brushed aside these huge moments in history, and not given them their proper place.”
But Bright Star will be doing precisely that when it presents the 45-minute production, “The Struggle For Freedom: The Life of Dr. King” at 2 p.m. Jan. 15 at The Commons for the local Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. King was a Southern Baptist preacher who led the civil rights movement beginning in the mid-1950s until his assassination April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
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The nonprofit Columbus Area Arts Council has been coordinating the free shows for several years to demonstrate the arts as a potent teaching tool.
Bright Star has been to Columbus previously — for various King holiday programs, along with First Friday For Families shows.
Kathryn Armstrong, the arts council’s executive editor, salutes the troupe’s work, which she refers to as edutainment.
“Bright Star Touring Theatre continues to present thought-provoking performances, and this is an opportunity for our community to come together, to celebrate equality, and the great work of those who came before us,” Armstrong said.
The audience for the presentation and question-and-answer session “gets a wide-angle view of the life of King and his many contributions, from his early days as a minister to his work to bring equality to all Americans,” according to the troupe’s overview.
“It can be a little tricky writing our scripts because of the wide age range of our audiences,” Batenhorst said, referencing toddlers to grandparents. “So we’re writing for an extremely broad group. So, if you’re coming to find out, say, everything you’ve ever wanted to know (about King), you’re probably not going to get all that because we have to deal with so much introductory material.”
Batenhorst has heard people, especially minorities, wonder if national racial struggles of the past year have taken the country back to a 1960s sense of injustice.
He mentioned that Bright Star’s civil rights’ productions generally detail more frequent and far-reaching racism — blacks restricted to their own restrooms, water fountains and schools, for example — than what currently exists in today’s mainstream society.
“But all that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a long way to go (toward equality),” Batenhorst said.
Bright Star is so sensitive to that journey that it regularly tweaks and adjusts scripts based on audience feedback and interpretation. The idea? Present the right information in the right tone and style in a changing world of race relations.
“I think the main thing for us, though, is just to try to tell the story,” he said. “And we’re trying to celebrate people’s (heroic) lives.”
What: The Columbus Area Arts Council presents Bright Star Touring Theatre performing “The Struggle For Freedom: The Life of Dr. King,” highlighting the civil rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s.
When: 2 p.m. Jan. 15.
Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St. in downtown Columbus.
Admission: Free, due to the sponsorship of the African American Fund of The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County and the city of Columbus.