Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Children’s crusade: A look at Ruby Bridges and friends

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Lucretia Anderson
Big heroes in small packages: The Smithsonian Associates’ Discovery Theater production of ‘‘How Old is a Hero?” at Adventure Theatre next Wednesday features (from left) cast members Kenny Littlejohn, Hernandez and Jeri Marshall.
They chased her with cameras, shouted her name, made it almost impossible for the girl to go about her day. But Ruby Bridges was no wild child movie star out of control. She was a 6-year-old with enough strength and grace to transcend the hatred and prejudice around her and desegregate the New Orleans school system circa 1960.

‘‘She’s a joy, ultimately,” says Paige Hernandez, the 28-year-old actress who plays Ruby in ‘‘How Old is a Hero?” at Adventure Theatre next week. ‘‘The nice thing about playing a child — about playing Ruby — is that she’s oblivious to it all.”

Hernandez says that Bridges matter-of-factly compared the angry mobs throwing epithets and rotten tomatoes to an unruly Mardi Gras crowd.

‘‘She’s a great role model for the elementary school age,” she observes.

Most of the audiences for whom Hernandez performs don’t just identify with Bridges; they know a bit about her. That makes Michael Bobbitt smile.

‘‘We didn’t study Ruby Bridges when I was in school,” says Bobbitt, 35, Adventure Theatre’s artistic director. ‘‘But kids do now.”

And what they learn in school about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, he adds, can be reinforced through the arts. ‘‘How Old is a Hero?” is a case in point. In 2003, Bobbitt was a cast member, performing the play with the Smithsonian Associates’ Discovery Theater. Over the years, Bobbitt has revised the show, and even had a chance to direct it. Now, he’ll bring the play to Adventure Theatre in celebration of Black History Month.

‘‘The wonderful thing about Smithsonian Associates and Adventure Theatre collaborating is we are all concerned with what kids learn,” says Bobbitt. ‘‘The topic has to be ‘Smithsonian worthy.’ It has to be interactive and it has to be authentic. This is all first-hand source material: We’re not making anything up, and the writers have to be of the culture they’re representing.”

The final requirement?

‘‘A call to action,” he says. ‘‘Why are you here? To tell other people. ‘How Old is a Hero?’ Well, how old are you? Because you can be a hero, too.”

Ear to ear

Ruby Bridges, head held high against the haters. Claudette Colvin, a teenager dragged off a bus and arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Ernest Green, eldest of the Little Rock Nine, under pressure to excel in all white Central High School.

The stories of three young heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were the inspiration for just one of the plays created by Smithsonian Associates’ Discovery Theater.

‘‘‘How Old is a Hero’ is part of a series we started,” says Roberta Gasbarre, the theater’s director. ‘‘Raquis Petree and I sat down in the summer of 2000 and said, ‘Discovery Theater needs to present the aspects of black history that people don’t know about.’

‘‘The Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King — all great stories. But we created the ‘Greatest Stories Never Told.’”

They started with black cowboys — ‘‘Nat Love of the Wild West” — and moved on to Satchell Paige and baseball’s Negro League — ‘‘Black Diamond.” Then, says Gasbarre, the teachers on the theater’s advisory board asked for a musical about the Civil Rights Movement.

‘‘It started as a musical, but it wasn’t a good fit,” says Gasbarre. ‘‘The music we wrote was never as exciting and evocative as the archival music of the time.”

Great music, she notes, tends to go hand in hand with protest movements. And this being Smithsonian Associates’ Discovery Theater, the show uses actual archived recordings from the Smithsonian Folkways collection.

‘‘You’re hearing the original marchers singing ‘This Little Light of Mine,’” says Gasbarre. ‘‘You’re hearing the African American spirituals that speak of deep troubles and sorrows, actual quotes from historical figures.

‘‘When you go to a museum, you have a personal interaction with the object itself,” she adds. ‘‘Face to face, ear to ear: the museum-theater experience.”

History alive

Gasbarre believes that ‘‘black history is American history. When you look at black history during Black History Month, you find the messages are universal: the same struggles, the same questions that all people ask themselves about their place in the world.”

But sometimes history comes alive right in front of us. In 1960, for example, Howard University students and professors staged a peaceful protest outside the gates of Glen Echo Park, then an oasis of amusements and refreshment that was closed to them because of their skin color.

‘‘The same year Ruby Bridges was integrated [into the New Orleans schools], Howard University integrated Glen Echo Park,” says Bobbitt, who walks through the park every day from his Glen Echo home to his job running Adventure Theatre. ‘‘It’s special to me because I teach at Howard.”

And because he teaches children: his little son, the kids who come to his plays, the young adults in his classes. Hernandez says it only makes sense to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of young people.

‘‘It was all motivated by and executed by children — Ruby, Claudette and Ernest,” she says. ‘‘It took their sense of fairness, and their bravery, their courageousness.

‘‘Their parents backed them up, and Dr. Martin Luther King, but it’s a children’s story at heart.”

Shows begin at 10 and 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, at Adventure Theatre, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd. Guided tours of the park are available after each show. Tickets are $12. Call 301-634-2270, or visit