Dialogues on Diversity
@ Common Ground Theatre
4815B Hillsborough Road, Durham
Through May 23

We want to believe the major events that compose human progress are permanent. Indeed, the belief figures into a number of world religions: that moments like the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree or the death of Christ are eternally self-sufficient and self-disclosing.

As comforting as the thought may be, it is mistaken. Two regional productionsone focusing on the experiences of African-Americans in the last 50 years, the other dealing with the responses of British culture to the so-called Great Warunderline the terrible fragility of history. Both show that if the events that hold our greatest values aren’t regularly brought back to memory and attention, we run the risk of losing them.

At Common Ground Theatre, playwright and actor Ron Jones’ notable solo show, THE MOVEMENT: 50 YEARS OF LOVE AND STRUGGLE, dramatizes the last half-century in civil rights and African-American culture. Under Willette Thompson’s direction, Jones briskly juxtaposes projected facts and news footage against the responses of a series of characters, some of whom we return to over the decades.

At the outset, an excited young father named William holds his newborn son as he, and we, watch Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on television. “You know what that man is talking about? He’s talking about you,” William says to the infant.

As The Movement progresses, William speaks of his experiences in the Poor People’s Campaign: “We were the medicine a childish nation needed to take if we are ever gonna grow up to be big and strong of spirit.” When he later learns of Rep. John Conyers’ 1989 bill to consider reparations for African-Americans, William scoffs, “Now you know as well as I that this country will never have a grand fit of conscience and start writing checks for past bad acts.”

Other characters pop in and out as the timeline unwinds. A clergyman recalls the exact moment he realized that Martin Luther King Jr. would not survive the Civil Rights Movement. After the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit notes that Simpson became a symbol for black and white people, but that “both sides missed the point.”

One of the greater services this production provides is placing historical words back in the mouths of those who said them. I repeatedly felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck as President Johnson admitted the starkest of home truths, Stokely Carmichael exhorted Black Power in Berkeley in 1966, and King indicted a nation wedded to warfare in an excerpt from his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

On the weekend of its world premiere, Jones and Thompson were still tweaking the show, adding new material on the basis of audience response. The intersections between video and live performance were rewarding in some sequences, including a comic sketch, featuring Brian Yandle, on the white-flight phenomenon, but rough in passages where dialogue occurs between actors on stage and on screen.

Jones’ technique as an actor supports the broad cast of characters we encounter, even if a stereotypical Indian accent for one seems ill-advised, and his vivid writing engages us, only lapsing into sentimentality in the final scene. But the true generosity of this work lies in William’s observation: “A true movement isn’t about how far you go. It’s about how many you bring along with you.”