“Freedom Riders” presents a look back at troubling times

"Freedom Riders" is at Crossroads Theatre

Possibly the most powerful play put on this season in New Jersey’s theaters

Crossroads Theatre Company opens its inaugural “Crossroads Festival Theatre” with Freedom Riders, a recreation of events leading up to the historic bus rides of young men and women from the North into the segregated South of 1961. It pulls no punches in showing the emotional turmoil or the physical danger these brave young people dealt with on their journeys. It is possibly the most powerful play put on this season in New Jersey’s theaters, and therefore it is one that must be seen.

The strong script, directed by Artistic Director Ricardo Khan, and co-written by Khan with Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Murray Horwitz, Nathan Louis Jackson, and Nikkole Salter, starkly retells our all-too-recent history that seems to be rearing its head again today, tracing the journeys of six Freedom Riders. White Californian Jean (Kelsey Anne Brown), in love with her Black longtime friend Lloyd (Ryan Foreman), sneaks off without telling her parents of her decision to go. Phillip (Josh Lerner), a Jewish college student, makes a bet on whether or not the buses will arrive at their destination, then decides to join the riders with his buddy Swanson (Alex Scoloveno). Carl (Martin K. Lewis), the son of Jamaican immigrants in New York, and Jennifer (Alexis Louise Young), the third generation of her family in Detroit, defy their parents to join the fight for equality. Angela (Cassandra Ogbozor), a Philadelphia school teacher and activist, feels drawn to set an example for her pupils of the power of nonviolent protest. We watch as this disparate group forms strong links of friendship, commonality, and unity, sharing in triumphs and supporting each other through times of despair.

We follow the six through part of their training for the rides, which will travel from Washington, DC through the deep south until finally arriving in New Orleans. As their tour progresses, they become targets of increasingly violent and degrading racist attacks, hearing in their minds the instructions of their trainers. Splitting up in Georgia, some are riding on a bus hit by firebombs. The others, entering Birmingham, AL, are pulled from the bus and beaten – and learn that bigotry and hatred are alive even in the hospitals that refuse them treatment.

Crossroads’ design team has created an awesome world on stage. Beowulf Borrit’s set is a stark image of jagged strips seemingly torn from the floor forming columns rising the height of the back of the stage, with places defined by chairs, tables, and planks, and the graphic illumination of Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting design, aided by projections of scenes of the summer of 1961 designed by Katherine Freer. The sound design by Christopher Kris wraps popular Black music of the time in and around the action of the play and recreates the sound of a bus on the highway and the fog of noise and confusion in a viciously planned attack. Toward the end of the play, what would be the star field of an American flag is lowered from above.  The placing of that field is such that we get the image of an upside-down flag – the symbol of distress – while names of the actual Freedom Riders are projected upon it.

Upon seeing Freedom Rider, it is clear that Crossroads has reclaimed its power as a producing company, roaring back to its rightful position as not only a major force in Black theater but also as a Tony™ Award-winning regional theater. For a hard-hitting yet uplifting view of the work done to get us to today – and the difficult work still to be done – I strongly urge you to make your way to the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center to see Freedom Rider!

Freedom Rider is presented by Crossroads Theatre Company at the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through June 26th. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org or call 732-545-8100. The performing arts center requires the wearing of masks while inside the building.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has recently been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre reviewers. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.