Call the stage an oversized classroom for the Cincinnati Children’s Theatre, wrapping lesson plans in story lines and highlighting facts with footlights.
“We call it edu-tainment,” said Chris Stewart, a member of ArtReach Touring Productions, the theater company that performs before thousands annually. “We figure that, if you are trying to educate somebody, why not also try to entertain them at the same time?”
That’s precisely what the troupe will do Monday at The Commons when it presents the free play “The Rosa Parks Story” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The one-hour production highlights the life of the black woman who refused to give up her bus seat to white passengers Dec. 1, 1955, in Alabama. As a result of her experience, Parks became a celebrated leader of the civil rights movement.
The 26-year-old Stewart, the play’s director, understands that sometimes presentations on sensitive topics can be challenging in a world polarized by plenty.
“I understand that the two sides of any debate right now can have a difficult time empathizing and seeing things from the other’s point of view,” Stewart said. “But one of the things theater can effectively do is create that empathy because of a living, breathing, passionate person being depicted in front of them.”
Gwen Wiggins, president of the Bartholomew County Area Chapter of the NAACP, said she is pleased that the Columbus Area Arts Council worked to bring the troupe here. She said the show is especially important because so many younger students are hearing about Rosa Parks for the first time.
“I think it’s wonderful they’re presenting this,” said Wiggins, adding that Second Baptist Church in Columbus, which she attends, has presented a Rosa Parks play in the past. “I think it’s important to continue to let people know why we’re involved in the struggle (for equality).”
Columbus resident Paulette Roberts, a retired public school teacher who has played the underground railroad’s Harriet Tubman in public performances, said Parks definitely needs to be included in any teaching on civil rights.
“She is a part of American history, and I think we want to include all significant Americans — not just history from only certain groups,” Roberts said.
Stewart said ArtReach’s audiences have been captivated by the Parks play ever since it was first presented in 2008.
“It’s part of a period of time fraught with so much conflict and disarray that it not only captures the imagination of students, but it also ignites their passion,” he said.
Youngsters naturally embrace the arts anyway, according to Stewart, who sees children’s vivid imagination.
“There are kids who go on the jungle gym at recess and they’ll say things like, ‘OK, the pavement is really lava, and we’re actually in a cave right now and ... ’”
Stewart said his research on Parks showed that she never felt children should be exempt from becoming strong voices for whatever is right.
“She still expected them to speak up,” Stewart said of the woman who died in 2005 at age 92.
The director said he understands that his cast is spotlighting history and planting perspective in audiences destined to be tomorrow’s leaders, making ArtReach’s influence significant.
“We feel that with that great power we have comes great responsibility,” he said. “We take that responsibility very seriously.”