Volume 76, Number 50 | May 9 -15, 2007

Photo by Nancy Bareis

Marvin Duverne and Farin Schlussel in Adam Kraar’s dramatic ode to the Freedom Riders of 1964, “Freedom High.”

Still high on the promise of freedom

By Jerry Tallmer

Raleigh, North Carolina, isn’t the Deep South, but it’s south enough for Adam Kraar to have asked himself why his grandmother — “a little old white lady” — was taking herself and him, then age 5, to a black church in Raleigh every Sunday.

It was also the church where they held a memorial for her when she passed.

In due course he found out why.

The congregation loved her. That little old white lady, Suzanne Freund, had been a German Jew fortunate enough to get out in time.

“She’d experienced prejudice at first hand and saw the dangers of racism better than most Americans,” says the grandson whose “Freedom High,” a drama set in the exhilarating, incredibly dangerous civil-rights Freedom Summer of 1964, gets eight Queens College performances starting Wednesday, May 9.

“She herself was a part of the civil-rights moment — a movement that, for me, has always been close to home. These people in the play” — Freedom Riders of that summer of 1964 — “are my heroes. The play is about blacks and whites connecting” — tactically, ideologically, politically, in fear, in courage, emotionally, sexually — “but not understanding one another.”

Adam Kraar teaches drama at the New York Institute of Technology, just off Columbus Circle, so why is “Freedom High” being done at Queens College and then (last two performances, all of it directed by Susan Einhorn) at the Queens Theatre in the Park where once was located the World’s Fair — the Robert Moses World’s Fair — of that same summer of 1964?

Add connections.

Civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman — white, black, white — disappeared off the face of the earth after being arrested for “speeding” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on the night of Sunday, June 21, 1964. Two days later their burnt station wagon was fished out of a Mississippi swamp. Forty-four days later their bodies were dug up from beneath an earthen dam in the next county.

Andrew Goodman, a nice kid from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was a 20-year-old Queens College junior who’d done some acting, intended to major in drama, but got involved, instead, in the civil-rights movement.

Rita Schwerner, wife of Mickey Schwerner and no less of a civil-rights activist, was a QC graduate.

In April of 1964, two months before Philadelphia, Mississippi, the Queens College campus had been the site of a “Freedom Week” of lectures, marches, and rallies, and on July 2 of that year, soon after the disappearance of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, students at QC held a five-day water-only “Fast for Freedom.”

“My grandmother was the seed, and the murder of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner was the catalyst of this play,” says its author.

Add ironies.

Robert Moses, Commissioner of Everything, the man who forced that ’64 World’s Fair into existence as a kind of monument to himself, was more than a bit of an on-the-record racist. In fact it was a mass demonstration led by SNCC (pronounced Snick), the civil-rights movement’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, that put the skids under Moses’s whole ballyhooed boondoggle on its chaotic opening day.

Well, friends, there was also at just that time another Robert Moses, a secretary for SNCC, not in Queens but out there in the field, a slim, quiet, black, bespectacled, determined young man in overalls, commander-instructor of the legions of the young flooding across the Mason-Dixon Line to try to attain justice and voting rights for a population that had never had them.

“Our goals are limited,” this Robert (Bob) Moses says, in the play, to a group of volunteers-in-training at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. “If you can go and come back alive, that is something. If you can go into Negro homes and just sit and talk, that will be a huge job. We’re not thinking of integrating the lunch counters. The Negroes of Mississippi haven’t the money to eat in those places anyway.” 

If there is much misunderstanding and no little overt hostility between some of the Southern blacks and Northern whites who should be all on the same side of this paroxysm, there is also no little sweetness. It’s sort of a substance, a vapor, in the air — a distillation of high courage and pure terror intermixed here and there, now and again, with a fleeting touch of love on the run.

“All those intoxicating hopes slammed into reality pretty quickly,” says the Adam Kraar who, slammed or not, worries about “people who have lost faith in the possibility of changing the direction of this country.”

Born in Chapel Hill, N.C., forty-something years ago, playwright Adam Kraar — the son of journalist Louis Kraar and librarian Ebba Kraar — “grew up all over the world.” He now lives in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens with his wife, the astrologist, columnist, and author Karen Christino. “The whole sense of being an outsider informs this play,” says her husband. The stars look down without comment, as they did on Philadelphia, Mississippi, one night 43 years ago.

FREEDOM HIGH. By Adam Kraar. Directed by Susan Einhorn. With Farin Schlussel, Marvin Duverne, Joel Bernard, Marsha Reid, Ugo Eze, Elyse Price, Nick Radu, Matthew Pimble, Jenna Guercio, Nick Riznyk, Monica Barczac, Amanda Shafran. A Queens College production May 9-13 at the QC Little Theatre, May 19-20 at the Queens Theatre in the Park, (718) 793-8080.

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