- Courtesy Of Lindsay RaymondJack Photography
- From left: Starnubia, Angella Katherine, Ashley Nicole Baptiste and Monica Leigh Rosenblatt
Lost in the history of the civil rights movement are the stories of women who traveled to the newly desegregated South to campaign for equal rights. Sadly, they're nearly lost in Vermont Stage's production of Cadillac Crew as well, which resists using theater's strengths to tell a story and settles for presenting a tribute. The sacrifices that have propelled Black activism since the 1960s remain vital to acknowledge, and while this show may not be strong theater, the play honors that work.
Historically, "Cadillac crews" were groups of women with the means to travel by car, not bus, advancing the same nonviolent message the Freedom Riders did. But the women sought to correct two disparities: the civil inequality of Black people and the gender inequality of women. It was dangerous work in the Deep South, and meetings with supporters were conducted in secret.
Tori Sampson's 2019 play begins in a Virginia civil rights organization in 1963, as four women are doing the clerical tasks to support the group's male political and church leaders. Rachel is an idealist who hopes to become a rousing public speaker. Dee believes in the power of the movement, but her 12-year-old daughter is now the only Black girl in a desegregated school. Sarah, who's white, is drawn to the group's goals. Abby, just out of college, is impatient for the world around her to change and lunges between cynicism and aspiration.
Rachel has booked Rosa Parks as the first female speaker at a conference and is devastated when the male leaders cancel her appearance. Parks was going to speak about women's issues, including rape, but the men decide that now is not the time. The four characters realize that men aren't ever going to put women's rights on the agenda, so Rachel suggests they form a Cadillac crew to bring the message directly to women.
After some scenes on the road, the play leaps from 1963 to 2019 to center on the most recent wave of protesters, the founders of Black Lives Matter. As valuable as it is to showcase the efforts of women organizers in the 1960s and those still at this work today, playwright Sampson's script and director Jammie Patton's staging neglect theater's power to move people. They pin up a poster instead of telling a story.
Presenting abstract ideas onstage requires characters in opposition so that a concept can be the basis of an action or an argument. Sampson builds some conflict as the characters differ on how hard to push women's rights and how scared to be of white backlash. But these conversations are more riffs than showdowns, and no character ever stands to lose more than having the last word.
Sampson is so keen to avoid boring the audience with exposition that the storytelling is oblique. It's hard to tell what's at stake for each character. And much of the speech is oratory, not drama. Too often, the characters tell each other, and the audience, what all of us already know.
Patton has developed a warm camaraderie among the four actors. They sass each other, lip-synch to the radio and speak in rapid-fire bursts, usually ending with a note of mockery. A comic overtone suffuses the stage. The performers seem to be enjoying themselves but don't connect fully, unreeling their speeches instead of hearing each other and responding. Patton sets a fast pace, but it blurs the reason anything is being said.
The director's staging uses little physical action to express the characters' needs or embody the play's ideas. The first scenes are played in an office dense with realistic touches, yet the movement undermines this fidelity as characters don't complete the clerical tasks they vaguely start. After that interlude of realism, Patton samples different theatrical styles to suit the script's shift from dramatizing events to presenting speeches, including an all-too-faithful re-creation of a podcast with actors frozen in spotlights. Director and playwright start using presentation, not theater.
The actors show us four strong women. Ashley Nicole Baptiste captures Rachel's idealism as a steady flame of hope. Angella Katherine, as Abby, has a defiant strut and embodies a character with her guard, and her wit, always up. As Sarah, Monica Leigh Rosenblatt portrays a woman carefully nursing past sorrow and loudly clamoring about current injustice. Starnubia gives Dee square-shouldered power, always forced to choose between fear and courage.
Scenic designer Jeff Modereger supplies a realistic set for the civil rights office and a stylization of car and highway. Sound designer Jess Wilson uses sound effects that beautifully ground the scenes, especially a dark night on the road.
Costume designer Sarah Sophia Lidz not only captures the period but expresses each character's self-image. Rachel's zeal is made just nonthreatening enough in a businesslike dress and jacket. Dee's controlled optimism glows in a green patterned dress. Abby wears a youthful, bright colors, while Sarah accentuates her curves. Topped off with well-chosen wigs, heels, gloves and handbags, the clothing transports us to 1963. And when the characters return in modern dress, they exude the power and confidence of modern Black women owning their appearance.
Cadillac Crew isn't strong as theater, but it is a recognition of the ideals that have propelled Black activism. The play tries to convey the danger and doubt that civil rights organizers faced, and these obstacles are worth understanding. If only Sampson and Patton had made us feel them. The personal stories of underdeveloped characters have little weight, and the playwright's rhetoric is well-worn sloganeering. In this play, no one changes. Society has, though with further to go, thanks to well-known activists and the unsung people Sampson eulogizes. The play is more essay than drama, but the subject is what matters.