On a mission to make the public aware of the struggles our community underwent to ensure equal treatment for all, the Missouri History Museum is utilizing live theater via the ACTivists Project to engage audiences in its exhibit “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis,” on display through April 15.
When studying the Civil Rights Movement, many people may not realize the vital role St. Louis played in shaping the laws of today. Yet, our city was home to four precedent-setting Supreme Court Cases that changed everything. Through the ACTivists Project — which includes both in-school visits and actors in the museum gallery most hours it’s open — the Missouri Historical Society is employing the emotional power of theater to help students and museum patrons understand the racial justice struggles of those who came before us.
ACTivist Merlin Bell says he found his calling as an actor and educator through this project. “I’ve always wanted to be an actor but most theatrical companies aren’t focused on social activism, which is what I’m passionate about,” he says. “The subject can become overwhelming, especially for children and teenagers who aren’t used to engaging in topics of civil rights. Using a theatrical lens and the power of storytelling to help engage such intense subjects helps them understand what was really happening at the time.”
In an effort to further this goal, Missouri History Museum Director of Education and Interpretation Elizabeth Pickard, who writes many of the scripts, says each of the performances is set in a particular time. “David Grant [portrayed by Bell] had a very long and storied career, but we chose to set the play at the time of the March on Washington, which was a very important chapter in the Civil Rights Movement that many people don’t even know existed,” Pickard says.
Although much of the script is garnered from oral histories and newspaper interviews of yesteryear, Pickard says, writing the short plays isn’t always so straightforward. “Sometimes what lawyers say on the record doesn’t make for the best piece of theater, so we look for pieces where they were writing more informally,” she says. “We’re doing our best to get an accurate representation of the time based on in-depth historical research, and we’re taking as few liberties as possible while still writing a tight, five-minute story the audience can follow.”
Performing in the museum gallery for several hours a day, Bell has been moved by some of the reactions of spectators. “It definitely starts a dialogue,” he says. “Some people have come up to me and cried, saying they wished they could have done more. I often try to console them that things happen, and sometimes we don’t have the courage to do things that other people can do. Not all of us are meant to be on the front lines protesting.”
Thus far, 5,900 students have seen an ACTivist as part of an in-school visit, and by the closing of the exhibit in mid-April, 8,600 students will have experienced this interactive theater project. One particular in-school visit remains vivid in Bell’s memory. “A teacher was in tears because she wanted to be on the front lines protesting but she had a kid at home and didn’t want to be arrested,” he says. “I told her, ‘What you’re doing right now as a teacher — helping the students understand touchy or uncomfortable subjects and just being there for them — is the best thing you can possibly do.’ This project has opened the doors for so many people of so many races and classes to come together and talk about these issues and respond to things they didn’t know happened here in St. Louis.”
ACTivists have been so successful in engaging their audiences because theater gives the exhibit a much more intimate feeling. “Hearing about personal experiences the way you would one-on-one in a conversation makes history seem so much less distant and much more relatable,” Pickard says. “The other thing that makes these activists remarkable is that they were doing what they could where they were using the tools they had; many of them were raising families and all of them had other obligations as well.”
St. Louis’s role in the Civil Rights Movement is “something we should be proud of,” according to Pickard. “The idea that people take away after experiencing the ACTivists is that the struggle for freedom is a continuum,” she says. “We’re not just talking about the Civil Rights Movement from 1954-1968. It started in 1819 in St. Louis and is going on today.” M